Friday, 28 November 2008

Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak

Kanye West's fourth album is a radical stylistic departure from everything he's done before, but the one thing he has retained from his previous life is his infuriating inconsistency

Kanye West - 808s and Heartbreak (***)
album review for the skinny

Kanye West's fourth studio album 808s and Heartbreak must not be approached as a Kanye West album. It’s not hip-hop: it’s claustrophobic electro-pop, entirely sung with Auto-tune; and it’s pretty depressing. In fact it’s so shockingly different from everything he’s ever done before, and in such stark contrast to his ebullient public persona, that it initially sounds like the chronicling of a mental breakdown. In fact, it’s a breakup album, mostly, with each song being strongly influenced by Kanye’s recent split from long-time fiancée Alexis Phifer. It’s been a bad year for Kanye, because his mum died too, and it’s clear the loss of both women from his life has left his seemingly gargantuan self-confidence severely punctured. Some people will like that idea, and plenty will be waiting to hate on 808s, but it doesn’t deserve contempt: he’s taken a huge risk by pouring his heart out and changing his style, and some of it actually works.

Kanye might be known as a narcissist, but 808s’ self-indulgence comes from depression, not ego, and that’s the mood that pervades. Opener Say You Will sets the scene with a melancholic choir aahing for three vocal-less minutes of an outro; Street Lights ends with Kanye lifelessly concluding “life’s just not fair”; and an almost tearful vocal in Bad News - “my face turned to stone when I heard the news” - takes on extra meaning given the context. Welcome To Heartbreak contains a verse so breathtakingly trivial - about not having a date to take to his god-sister’s wedding, and leaving before the cake is cut - that it actually strengthens the conviction of his sorrow: only someone utterly consumed by self-pity could be so upset by that as to use it in a song as a definition of heartbreak.

But it’s the final (and hidden) song that delivers the real pathos: it’s a live performance, a lo-fi audience recording of a freestyle he performed on-stage in Singapore, later titled Pinocchio Story (because he hates fame and just wants to be a real boy, obvs). Why not a soundboard recording, or even a new studio version? In fact, the poor quality makes it incredibly effective at communicating the isolation he feels: the lower volume makes him sound distant, as if he’s had to retreat after doing the popstar thing for the first 11 songs; and the audience reaction - baffled silence as Kanye pours his heart out with punctuated cheers for misheard positivity - reinforces the disconnect between him and his fans. How can he be personal to thousands of persons he doesn’t know? When he cries “do you really have the stamina, for everybody that sees you to say ‘where’s my camera?’” on a recording that could very well have been ripped from a fan’s camera phone, his point becomes a pertinent one. Yes it’s self-indulgent whining, but that’s what heartbroken people do: they lose all perspective and complain about every little thing. In the unrefined vocal of Pinocchio Story, when he’s stripped of all adornments, you can hear he’s genuinely hurt and suffering; for all his history with sampling, this is the most soulful he’s ever been.

Not only is 808s far sadder than any of Kanye‘s previous, it’s also not hip-hop in any real sense. There’s two rapped verses on the whole record, both by guests, so vocally it’s almost completely sung, roboticised by the Auto-tune. The clear and deliberate use of Auto-tune hasn’t had much exposure here in the UK, but it’s become increasingly common (and divisive) in mainstream US hip-hop recently. Here, it’s better known as “the Cher effect”: remember the vocal in Believe, like a vocoder but not? Despite the controversy of its overuse, it’s not too intrusive here, mostly just adding to the sense of detachment which is a theme throughout. 808s is packed with 80s musical signifiers, ranging from Depeche Mode ambience to Hacienda-style piano lines and Phil Collins’ gated drum effects. It’s not all down: first single Love Lockdown builds from Portishead-like deep bass blows, adds a housey piano bounce and then big tribal drums into a brilliant pleading chorus; and Paranoid has an irresistible playful synth-line and reassuring chorus hook courtesy of Mr Hudson.

But if there’s one thing Kanye has retained from his previous albums, it’s his inconsistency. To match and reduce the impact of those two standouts, there’s two standout poor tracks: Amazing and Robocop. The first suffers from laziness: Kanye is apparently so amazed that so many people come out to see him, that he’s unable to articulate his feelings any clearer than by repeating “it’s Amazing” about four hundred times. Robocop is all kinds of ridiculous, with not one or two but three tacky synth-string motifs overwhelming the rest of the song: the underlying two come from the Strings FX button on his Casio keyboard, and the other, the big charging melody, is the result of pressing ‘Demo‘.

Still, at least when he’s bad, he’s bad in a ridiculous way. Did I mention the Haka grunting? Millions of Kanye fans will be disappointed by 808s and Heartbreak, and those who already dislike him will find endless ammunition for their snark here. Those who buy into it will need sturdy and well-rehearsed arguments to defend it, and the stamina to do so often. But although 808s is an album that will polarize like few others, once the stylistic change has been understood it in fact stands and falls by the same standards as his previous three albums: by conveying some ideas brilliantly, and some not, it hints at outrageous talent without delivering it consistently.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

radio show 02

The Skinny Knows The Score episode 2, broadcast @ on 17 November 2008

ripped at 320, just over an hour, 146MB

1. New York Dolls - Personality Crisis
2. Ramones - Beat on the Brat
3. Jay Reatard - Always Wanting More
4. These Arms Are Snakes - Red Line Season
5. Black Affair - I Go Out (featuring The Cock & Bull Kid)
6. Ming Ming & The Ching Chings - Show Off
7. Friendly Fires - Paris (Aeroplane Mix)
8. De Rosa - Cathkin Brae
9. Jenny Lewis - Pretty Bird
10. Brendan Campbell - Burgers and Murders
11. James Yorkston - Tortoise Regrets Hare (Down The Tiny Steps remix)
12. Mr Scruff - ? (something offa Keep It Unreal)
13. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Ain't Gonna Rain Anymore
14. Late of the Pier - Bathroom Gurgle

early thoughts on Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak

I deliberately ignored all the leaked singles, didn't watch his MTV performance of Love Lockdown or anything, so had never heard any of this until yesterday. So if you've been following the pre-release hype closely, you might've read all this before. But my jaw was scraping the floor after listening to 808s & Heartbreak yesterday.

I cannot think of the last time such a major artist took such a major risk. Not only is it so utterly different from what he's ever done before, it's also different in a very challenging way because it's morose, synthetic and entirely Autotuned (at least, that's kinda challenging to British ears - the overt Autotune thing hasn't really happened over here, I've never listened to T-Pain or Flo Rida, even Lil Wayne has little to no profile here (Wiki says Tha Carter 3 has sold 60,000 copies here since debuting at No.23 in the album chart)). But it's not just the Autotune, everything about this record is bizarre. It's not a Kanye West record, it's a breakdown, it's a headfuck. It's The-Dream doing his own Plastic Ono Band. That's one of my favourite albums of all time but a lot of people hate it for its self-indulgence: it's got nothing on the self-indulgence of 808s, and Kanye will lose a lot of fans with this. It's going to be very easy to hate on; people who defend it will need developed arguments, and the stamina to wield them regularly.

The final song, Pinocchio Story, is what's interesting me the most so far. It's an audience recording, not soundboard, and there's even one point where a girl screams and the recording distorts so you can hear it's some cheap lo-fi recording device. That's not Kanye production values, that's a crappy bootleg or a YouTube rip, which he's using to close out his album!? But I think it works amazingly well because its much quieter than the rest of the record, he sounds so distant, it's like he's gone away, like he can only do the 'performing mega-star' thing for so long before he has to retreat. But also there's obvious disconnect between him and the crowd - he's pouring his heart out and the crowd is bemused and silent but when they hear "and people say Kanye's too real" (roughly) they cheer - yeah you're so real Kanye! - and totally miss his point. He's trying to be deeply personal to thousands of persons he doesn't know, and I think that alienation is the point of the whole record, and I think Pinocchio Story conveys that brilliantly.

I'm reviewing it for The Skinny and still don't know whether it's a 2, or a 5, or anywhere in-between. It's dominating all my thoughts since I put it on 24 hours ago. It's extraordinary.

some dudes on the train

live review for the skinny (****)
23:30 from Queen Street to Edinburgh, 16 Nov 2008

We're on the last train home, and it's mobbed. It's Sunday night. Some have been at Kanye West, some have been at TV On The Radio, some have been at Fucked Up, all are very tired. There's a dude sitting on the floor with a guitar, another with a bongo, another with a flute, and a lady is sitting, singing: Jump by Van Halen, Toxic by Britney Spears, Girls & Boys by Blur, No Limit by 2 Unlimited, and more. There's a part of me, the gnarly curmudgeonly part, that wants to be cynical, wants to deride them as hippy bloody students; but can't. An older gentleman is sitting behind them, loving it. 'I've misjudged the youth of today,' he thinks, 'because they get in my way and annoy me - but look at this!' Someone says "better than that support band!", and everyone agrees, no sarcasm in sight. Sure, we could all be pithy and dismissive, but why ruin the vibe? They give us a sticker, it says The Banana Sessions. How appropriate for a guerilla gig, boom tish. Check them out.

this went down exactly as is. Three Skinny writers were there to see it - myself, Darren Carle and Nick Mitchell - and we all really enjoyed it. I said I'd write it up, as a joke, but we weren't joking really. They entertained the train so, we thought they might appreciate the mention. It's apparently going in the print version of the mag next month, which is nice. Can't you feel the love in the room?

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Okkervil River @ Oran Mor, 9 Nov

Okkervil River live at Oran Mor, Glasgow, 9/11/08 (****)
live review for the skinny

Okkervil River's greatest moment yet is the seventh song of their fourth album, Black Sheep Boy. Halfway through tonight’s show, Will Sheff ushers his bandmates off-stage so he can perform "A Stone" almost-solo, so he can cultivate lumps in all our throats by explaining, through perfectly poised poetry, how baffling spurned affection can be; because love doesn’t behave as it should. Then, a trumpet heralds the arrival of something in my neck: so that’s what that expression means. But let’s not forget the overall quality of that album, nor the two since, and don’t mistake Okkervil’s smarts for rigidity: they’re more often flamboyant than reflective tonight. "Unless It‘s Kicks"’ riff is inspired by Bo Diddley‘s thrusting rhythms, and Sheff on-stage is a snaking hip and a swollen lip away from Mick Jagger; so they can rock, alright; but it’s "A Stone" which makes this show special.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers

blog post #13532512 about Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Singers List will not say "it's so bad it doesn't even deserve my attention!" or "why the hell do they continue to embarass themselves?" or any such unself-aware nonsense. Rolling Stone do this specifically so that people talk about it, it gets reported by other media sources, and bloggers discuss their favourite singers, and yes many people decide it sucks and that RS has no credibility, but all publicity is good publicity, right? Here's the list in full (which, on the official RS site, is split onto 101 different pages! 101 page views, right, boosts the advertising. Why the hell not? They'd rather you bought the actual magazine, I'm sure):

100 Mary J. Blige
99 Steven Tyler
98 Stevie Nicks
97 Joe Cocker
96 B.B. King
95 Patti LaBelle
94 Karen Carpenter
93 Annie Lennox
92 Morrissey
91 Levon Helm
90 The Everly Brothers
89 Solomon Burke
88 Willie Nelson
87 Don Henley
86 Art Garfunkel
85 Sam Moore
84 Darlene Love
83 Patti Smith
82 Tom Waits
81 John Lee Hooker
80 Frankie Valli
79 Mariah Carey
78 Sly Stone
77 Merle Haggard
76 Steve Perry
75 Iggy Pop
74 James Taylor
73 Dolly Parton
72 John Fogerty
71 Toots Hibbert
70 Gregg Allman
69 Ronnie Spector
68 Wilson Pickett
67 Jerry Lee Lewis
66 Thom Yorke
65 David Ruffin
64 Axl Rose
63 Dion
62 Lou Reed
61 Roger Daltrey
60 Björk
59 Rod Stewart
58 Christina Aguilera
57 Eric Bourdon
56 Mavis Staples
55 Paul Rodgers
54 Luther Vandross
53 Muddy Waters
52 Brian Wilson
51 Gladys Knight
50 Bonnie Raitt
49 Donny Hathaway
48 Buddy Holly
47 Jim Morrison
46 Patsy Cline
45 Kurt Cobain
44 Bobby "Blue" Bland
43 George Jones
42 Joni Mitchell
41 Chuck Berry
40 Curtis Mayfield
39 Jeff Buckley
38 Elton John
37 Neil Young
36 Bruce Springsteen
35 Dusty Sprinfield
34 Whitney Houston
33 Steve Winwood
32 Bono
31 Howlin' Wolf
30 Prince
29 Nina Simone
28 Janis Joplin
27 Hank Williams
26 Jackie Wilson
25 Michael Jackson
24 Van Morrison
23 David Bowie
22 Etta James
21 Johnny Cash
20 Smokey Robinson
19 Bob Marley
18 Freddie Mercury
17 Tina Turner
16 Mick Jagger
15 Robert Plant
14 Al Green
13 Roy Orbison
12 Little Richard
11 Paul McCartney
10 James Brown
09 Stevie Wonder
08 Otis Redding
07 Bob Dylan
06 Marvin Gaye
05 John Lennon
04 Sam Cooke
03 Elvis Presley
02 Ray Charles
01 Aretha Franklin

here's my money: we all have our favourites and arguing whether Sam Cooke or Otis Redding should be higher is pretty inconsequential. On the RS page I saw fans complaining "John Fogerty should be in the Top 5!", and all that, well maybe. Personally I'd like to have seen Bjork and Morrissey a bit higher, Lennon & McCartney a bit lower, and places found for Eddie Kendricks and Scott Walker; but, whatever: I haven't listened closely to every singer on this list, so maybe I'm wrong. It's pretty tough to argue against Aretha, or Ray or Elvis or the several soul stars in the upper reaches, and so on. But one omission really stands out for me: where the hell is Frank Sinatra?

If Frank Sinatra had won that poll, would anyone have seriously argued? Sure, Sinatra's first successes came before the 'rock era' which the poll claims to encompass, but he hardly stopped there: arguably his three signature songs (if his canon could be reduced to just three!) were "That's Life" (1966), "My Way" (1969) and "New York, New York" (1979). Fact is, he's one of the four biggest selling solo artists of all time (with Elvis, Bing Crosby and Jacko), and it was all down to his voice. In fact, according to Rolling Stone's own 1983 Record Guide, "He virtually invented modern pop song phrasing".

Why didn't he make the list? In a way, we can't blame Rolling Stone as such. This wasn't a Wenner-Marsh committee meeting which necessarily placed Dylan and the Beatles really high because, like, they define music for baby boomers (oh look, Dylan and the Beatles' singers are really high, huh). RS asked 179 'experts' to name their Top 20s, and Sinatra obviously didn't score enough points to make the list. What're they to do, fake it? Their list of 'experts' ranged from James Blunt (!) to Iggy Pop to David Fricke, but with almost 200 people taking part it's pointless trying to pick a few out who're undeserving, or whatever. So what explains the collective amnesia?

I think Frank Sinatra's just really uncool. Rolling Stone and the boomer generation have done such a thorough job of convincing us that popular music started with Elvis and The Beatles, with their music, that nobody from before then ever gets a look-in. But as I said - Sinatra still sold millions during the 60s and 70s, it's just by that time he was an anachronism, for the oldies, for the garage store spin-racks. He's other, but not in the sense of alternative: he's like Enya, who everybody's heard of and still sells by the bucketload, but Enya and Sinatra seem to exist in their own little space which is other to what I and we listen to and god knows who actually buys all these millions of records? It's probably your grandparents (at least as far as Sinatra's concerned, I'd still have no clue about Enya), or in other words: the boomers parents! So no wonder none of these 'experts' listed Sinatra as a favourite!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Optimo - Sleepwalk

Optimo - Sleepwalk (***)
album review for the skinny

Don't make the mistake of putting Optimo's new mix CD on for a gym visit or before a night out - it'll slow your treadmill to a halt or stunt the momentum of that party mood. Sleepwalk is much more suited to headphone listening, and its lush sound can be quite beautiful: from the opening sounds of a beachside tide; through obscure German ambient pioneers of the 70s; to a mesmerizing Arthur Russel cello and congo dream. The second half steps up a gear, reinforcing Optimo's famed eclecticism by moving between Duke Ellington, Future Pilot AKA and Lee Hazelwood in just a few minutes. But while this multifarious approach is ever-impressive, it's hard to pick out a thread for this second half other than: it's mid-paced, mostly unfamiliar, and it doesn't really go anywhere. Perhaps that's why it's called Sleepwalk - and the dreaming part, earlier, was more fun.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

radio show 01

The Skinny Knows The Score episode 1, 03/11

129MB, 57 minutes long, encoded at 320kbp

Myself and Lara Maloney have started presenting a The Skinny-themed radio show on Fresh Air. The first episode was on Monday night, 10-11pm GMT, and here it is above. I used to do radio regularly as a student, but Monday was my first time in 18 months, so as I was dealing with the buttons, knobs and sliders, and trying to do links too, I made a few minor fuck-ups. I'm sure with match-practice I'll get better. (Lara's first ever radio show was much smoother - a natural).

Here's the songs we played:
1. TV On The Radio - Halfway Home
2. Parts & Labor - Mount Misery
3. Little Joy - Don't Watch Me Dancing
4. Buzzcocks - Something's Gone Wrong Again
5. Television - Friction
6. Blondie - Union City Blues
7. Patti Smith - Break It Up
8. Bodies of Water - These Are The Eyes
9. Fucked Up - No Epiphany
10. Volcano! - Slow Jam (I think)

Little Joy

Little Joy - Little Joy (***)
album review for the skinny

Surely nobody was thinking of That's The Story Of My Life and After Hours when The Strokes and The Velvet Underground were being routinely compared back at the turn of the century. That's pretty much what Strokes' drummer Fabrizio Moretti's new side-project Little Joy sounds like: cutely perky acoustic folk songs, with minimal arrangements and nursery school vocal melodies. Playing the Moe Tucker role here is Fab's current beau Binki Shapiro, and her two tracks on lead include the standout Don't Watch Me Dancing, which swells to a singalong climax with Fab and regular singer Rodrigo Amarante on backing. The vocal harmonies provide the best moments throughout - the chorus cooing over old school organ licks on No One's Better Sake, the Western bar-room la-la-las on the elegiac With Strangers - but while Little Joy's stories are more grown-up than I'm Sticking With You ever was, few are, in a manner of speaking, made out of glue.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Tartan Army lose perspective in McNovo debate

While I'm waiting for these results, I gots something else to say!...

A week or two ago, Nacho Novo said that he would get a British passport and play for Scotland if he was asked to. Novo is a Rangers striker who scored about 25 goals for us in a season a couple years back, and frequently plays as a striker or right-winger, but is usually actually a sub or reserve. He's about our 4th or 5th choice striker, so he's not good enough to play for Scotland. But it was an innocent comment that provoked an uproar among Scotland fans who ridiculed the idea of a Spaniard playing for the team.

That seems kinda obvious, that it would make a mockery of International football. But International football is already a joke thanks to the very lax grandparent rules which Scotland already exploits to the detriment of 'real' Scots.

Novo has lived in Scotland for eight years, got married here, had kids here, and there's a good chance he'll continue to live here when his football career finishes. That doesn't make him Scottish, but to me it does make him more Scottish than many current Scotland players, such as Jay McEveley and James Morrison, who play for us because one grandparent was born in this country. This is because of the supposed 'bloodline' rule which trumps Novo in the eyes of many Scotland fans. But what does 'bloodline' actually mean? That Scottishness is in the JMs genes? That's utter nonsense: there's no such thing as nationality in genetics; when Montenegro split from Serbia, the Montenegran geneset didn't suddenly change. Just because a JM grandparent was born on this side of the border does not mean that grandparent is Scottish, never mind that their grandchildren would be in any way Scottish.

OK, so what does it mean to be Scottish? Does it mean haggis and Irn Bru and - well, generally a poor diet - and stinginess and alcoholism and kilts and bagpipes and inventions and glorious sporting failure? Whatever it means, these are clearly all cultural things, not racial things, these are all things which are suffused into a person's character or experience through living in this country. That's what Scots have in common - we live, or have lived for a fair while, in Scotland. That's why it strikes me as bizarre that Scotland fans can be happier that the JMs play for the country - despite only being here while on Scotland duty and never through normal residency - rather than Novo, someone who knows Scottish culture on a much deeper level. Whenever Scottish nationalists make a claim for our sovereignty, it's not because we're a different race from the English, but because we have a long history of having a distinct culture as a nation. So why attempt to bring genetics into it now?

It's a multicultural world now, so this supposed 'location of birth=genetic nationality' equation is going to become even more nonsensical as mass migration increases. Here's a scenario - a migrant family from Pakistan, and another from Poland, move to Glasgow and raise their children here. The kids grow up with Glaswegian accents and have only been 'home' on short, occassional holidays. What nationality are these kids, if they turn out to be good footballers? According to the silly 'bloodline' scenario, they are clearly Pakistani and Polish, but as nationality is actually a cultural phenomena rather than a racial one, they're more accurately Scottish. Would Scotland fans tell these kids they couldn't play for the national team? Of course not. The difference is that Novo moved here as as adult, and that apparently disqualifies him. The JMs never moved here, but they qualify because of the location of an event that occurred half-a-century before they were born.

A final thing here: England are supposedly Scotland's big rivals. It's practically part of the Tartan Army constitution to hate England: not 'the English', because that would be bigoted, but 'England', the football team and the oppressive institution. Yet, we'll gladly take England cast-offs to play in our team through the grandparent 'bloodline' rule rather than a Spaniard who actually lives here. Why? Because we know that the English are actually very similar, culturally and genetically, to us, more similar than the Spanish anyway. But you wouldn't get any Scotland fan saying that, oh no! Surely if the English are our big foes, we should reject their cast-offs as just that - England cast-offs who're taking advantage of a lucky freak of their family history to further their own careers with no actual care for Scotland or its fans?

I don't want Novo to play for Scotland either, but only because he isn't good enough.