Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Brilliance in blogging

In lieu of a real post, I'm just gonna say that I always knew he was into the crack grind.

Bronzer in shoe

OR Kelis's cover of The Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket"

Is it strange that Scarlet Johansson and her pinky wig spring to mind when I hear this? While it's undecidedly hipster/not hipster of me to say so (fuck you, really), I can't deny it. Johansson has a naturally nice, yet untalented voice that does a reasonable job with the tune. But a Kelis version shouldn't be in even the same karaoke bar, right? And yet, there they are, sharing fuck stories and altogether making spectacular drinking pals. Maybe it's because Kelis's canned brown sugar pipes (anyone else think she did this up in Pharrell's spaceship?) are so starkly different from the haughty precision of Chrissie Hynde. Chrissie wants to lead you to a single bed in a white room and screw you in the least involved way possible. Kelis (or Scarlet, I guess) wants to put her hands in your pants, grab the brass ring lead and you to the balcony or floor or bathroom.

Well... that's what it ought to be like. Still like her pink-coiffed compadre, Kelis's take on "Brass In Pocket" barely spills over the edges of the original. Instrumentally it's cast from the same mold, the only difference being the livelier production. Few chances and few surprises vocally, just a lot of audio-butter oozing outta her mouth. There's a sweet line about Detroit-leaning that Kelis sells a hell of a lot better than Hynde did, but that's peanuts. Someone should tell me that they shoved our girl K into the studio moments after she woke up; I'd believe it. Missing the sexy, missing the musical playfulness, missing everything I've come to expect from Ms. Milkshake. I wish I wasn't thinking that it might be the Neps that make Kelis great, but this cover does't afford me many other perspectives. To paraphrase an ILM quote, I hope her next album isn't this straight-forward. Straight-laced and sweatpants-wearing isn't you, honey!

Espers -- The Weed Tree
Locust Music; 2005

Folk music is a genre that often gets the shaft from casual music listeners these days. As the genre that's existed since the dawn of music and one that was immensely popular in the 50s and 60s, it's hard to believe how few people care about it today. Besides Bob Dylan, most folk musicians are ignored so completely that their existence is more associated with Nouveaux-hippy girls who love patchouli than the enormous culture of tradition yet envelope-pushing they belong to. If listeners can’t be bothered to explore the roots of the genre, Espers is a band that serves as invitation to today's take on folk.

Like archaeologists marveling at every speck of dust in a musty tomb, the members of Espers have taken great care to examine their roots. Espers churn out evocative and lush folk tunes that draw heavily from the vast careers of The Fairport Convention, Pentangle and The Incredible String Band. They also have a tendency to meander through psychedelic pastures, casting a hazy, mellow veil on their work. Their self-titled debut dropped early last year to quiet critical acclaim. Now a year and a half later, Espers gives listeners The Weed Tree: a seven song collection of covers and one original.

Word choice-enduced giggles aside, The Weed Tree further displays the high regard in which Espers holds its influences. Album-opener "Rosemary Lane" and "Black Is the Color" are traditional folk songs that are immediately familiar to the ear, even if they’ve never been actually heard before. The group also takes on the diverse crowd of Blue Oyster Cult's "Flaming Telepaths," Durutti Column’s "Tomorrow," Nico's "Afraid" and psych-folk legend Michael Hurley's "Blue Mountain." Performing covers is as precarious as is it is liberating. Without a blend of reverence, ability and one's own creative flourishes, covers tend to end up as filler for groups that are otherwise stumped. The Weed Tree comes off more as a thank-you card to the past for having preceded them.

The album starts with thoughtful strumming of the main theme of "Rosemary Lane," melancholic and crystal clear like haunting memories. Meg Baird and Brooke Sietinsons sing each line stoically -- as if it were lifted from their family history – their harmonies precisely leaping over and over each other. "Black Is the Color" is likewise bittersweet, adorned with deeply sorrowful cello lines, stately boy/girl harmonies and chimes -- lots of chimes. Espers's faithful treatment of the profoundly tear-jerking "Afraid" is pleasant, but fails because no one can intone the emotions of helpless love quite like Nico (not a strike against them). The selection of "Flaming Telepaths" by B.O.C. is an interesting choice, mostly because Espers isn't a junkie metal band. And yet, the trio molds "Flaming..." into their own creation by letting their freak-flag fly. Needle-thin guitar lines dance over industrial buzz synth lines and lazy drum patterns in the first half of the tune, then take a backseat to searing guitar solos and organ wails in the second. This creative elasticity is surprising and entirely welcome.

Even though Espers only contributes one song of its own, it's a bold reassurance that the group hasn't been sitting on their hands creatively. "The Dead King" is a mournful funeral march, complete with howling violin and synthesizer arrangements, and subtly-affected vocal melodies. As the musical procession fades, the desire for more original material arises. The group's careful and dazzling versions of other people's work as well as their own prophesizes a bright, if somber, future for Espers. The trio makes great use of a genre that popular culture has all but maligned through disinterest. Now that they've done the homework for the listeners, it's our turn to pay rapt attention.

What do I look like, a Burger King?

OR "Have It Like That," the first single from Skateboard P (Pharrell) feat. Gwen Stefani

Forget Nick Denton; Pharrell's head is its own solar system. If he had it his way, we'd all be planets and moons revolving around his strange take on genius. Maybe 'cuz he still looks like a kid (dude's like, 32?) he expects us to give him diamond-encrusted wowwy-pops. I used to be, like, thee Neptunes fan. My friend and I could do the fucking "douo doo doo" noise Pharrell used to slip into whatever he touched. Watching this decline into absolute absurdity has been easy, actually, because it was so predictable. Being behind the boards was never enough for the P-man. If you were wondering when dude would finally knock over whoever's video he was cameoing in to mug, this be it. You have a Gwen Stefani cosigned joint (though her contribution might be sampled from a L.A.M.B. commercial, who knows) and a new name. Again, he expects that people will take his output seriously, even if the best his straight-edge mind (4 lyfe) could come up with is Skateboard P. I expect only platinum decks from now on.

What's a shame is that the beat is hardly the worst thing Pharrell's attached his name to (back-handed compliment, sure). Verses are dark, contain idiotically simple drum taps, and the production is reminiscent of the better part of the tracks from The Neptunes Present: Clones. The synth-string rave up is harder to vouch for, but if this was Clipse on the beat you'd be all "Oh oh ok, I can see whut he dewing there." Pusha (and whoever ghost-wrote his "Drop It Like It's Hot" verse) might want to stab P for what this track calls rapping. More like wrapping up an odd assortment of name drops among lowball brags. Shit man, I've got Playdoh on my sock now; someone put Pharrell back in the play pen until he's learned his lesson.

Smushed slowly from the side

OR Death From Above 1979's "Black History Month (Josh Homme remix)

When I hear that a rock guy's remixing another highly refixable rock band, I'm prone to listen (rock the rockist, ok). Josh Homme may be on a different plateau than your average rock dude (drug choices, drug choices), but he's still pulverizing ears with string-ed instruments. Homme's taking this seriously, though; no influence-licking refix (Serj, we know it). Opening like a mystery novel in a lap or some mellow stick figure movie, Homme's version and its carefully manipulated bells (sample? studio dickery for sure) float over ominous thumps and Sebastien Granger's voice at a dirge pace. We don't see traces of "Black History"'s buzzy original until 1:51, and it comes in like swooped-up bat. The cut and paste work feels old-timey and simple to come to, but entirely necessary. The original stops by long enough to remind you "this ain't Tortoise," then sinks back into the book in the lap and the final frames of the flick. You just got rocked long and slow. Sounds a lot better than Transplants slowed and cut, I'll tell you what.

Razor blades, gabba gabba hey

OR M.I.A.'s "Galang '05" & other "Galang" remixes

Now I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger for making a new video or selling "Galang" to Scion or whoever. As someone sagely pointed out on ILM, these days being the cool music to like (or past tense, depending on how progressive and snobbish you'll admit to being) doesn't pay the bills. And yet, I'm still puzzled why "Galang" needs an update. Yeah, it belongs in 2k3, but it sounds as fresh today as it did when it first galangalangalanged off our ears (not to mention that Arular just dropped this year). And shit! The only real difference is the bridge/outro also acts as an intro. Who thinks doing that is going to sell more records, I don't know. The video is pretty silly too, doing a bit to sex her up and show off how incredibly spindly she is by having multiple personalities.

What kills me even further (dust to dust, maaaaaaaan) are these remixes. Serj Tankian of System of a Down doesn't so much remix as mash up Maya's vox with a mildly amusing Faith No More cop and some dhol flourishes. Not that I would expect much more from our pal Serj, but this sez two things: the song isn't Eastern/Asian enough sounding, so play that up, and the only way S.O.A.D. fans will accept this is if they're hit over the head with a Fender Squire riff. Where's your confidence in the lady? Another remix that's floating around is by Dave Kelly Main or something? It barely even matters because this is a further attempt to shove the Asian in M.I.A. down yer throat. (Don't get me wrong, I'm all Bollywood love.) They even got "Cham" blahing vaguely Indian things. Bollywood, if it gave a fuck about this tripe, would waggle a finger at'cha, boys. M.I.A. should really let Diplo and Richard X do more shit for her. Remember the "Galang" blend with "What Happened To That Boy"? Bananas, people. Bananas.

Franz Ferdinand -- You Could Have It So Much Better
Sony/Domino; 2005

Like a green banana or a baby chick still damp from its eggshell prison-break, Franz Ferdinand is in a state of transition. Last year's spunky, self-titled debut offered up historically informed post-punk that inspired hundreds of pinstripe outfits. A little more than a year later, audiences have let the Franz get a little dusty -- a move which strangely works in the band's favor. Seemingly endless touring has darkened the group's sound, finding them weary of bopping around to backbeats all the time. After regrouping away from public scrutiny, Franz Ferdinand has released You Could Have It So Much Better. This time around the band seems less intent on preciseness, issuing songs that are fulfilling but not necessarily cooked all the way through.

After one listen, fans of the group's debut might find themselves typing furiously to their likewise indie friends, "What the hell happened?" Although the group hasn't done anything drastic like abandon guitars (those rockists), dancing has left its post as the group's primary objective. In the midst of a few danceable tracks, the Franz opts for depth, trying its hand at forceful, new wave rock and occasionally dabbling in spacious ballads. From singer Alex Kapranos's demure howl to the vintage, razor wire guitar lines, to the group's well-loved harmonies, all of the popular components remain.

Where the Franz Ferdinand sees its greatest departure is in tone. Maybe jaded by brushes with music's corporate side, hurt from a love affair of indie proportions, or worn down by life on the road -- the result is a grimmer, more cynical sonic approach. "Evil & A Heathen" rocks a sinister rockabilly influence with a devilish grin. The hurt and snotty attitude of "You're the Reason I'm Leaving" leaks into the tune's melody. And what good and gloomy album would be without a song called "I'm Your Villain"? Even You Could...'s sunnier tracks are melodically partly clouded. That Franz Ferdinand acknowledged their collective mood instead of forcing a happy demeanor is to their credit.

Venturing outside of familiar musical territory has its risks, and sometimes the band's ideas don't quite make the leap from concept to sound. "This Boy" is a mess of a song that stumbles back and forth between opposing and ill-suited melodies. FF goes against its tuneful instincts on "I'm Your Villain," getting all awkward and minor in all the wrong places. "You Could Have It So Much Better" could be easily refashioned as an Art Brut track and done, unsurprisingly, better. Even "Do You Want To," the 2005 answer to "Take Me Out," fails to execute the pop tricks the Franz employed the first go-round.

Despite their failures, innovation also provides for some of the best songs on You Can.... The heartfelt "Eleanor Put Your Boots On" and "Fade Together" borrow adoringly from The Beatles and Kinks, using piano, harmonica and acoustic strums to full romantic effect. The band hits all of sweetest notes while deciphering ladyspeak on "What You Meant." FF rocks the hardest on its rockabilly joint "Evil & A Heathen," looking death in the eye and snarling right back.

So change is good then, no? In the case of Franz Ferdinand, deviating from an award-winning musical style (literally) is both a gift and curse. While still wet behind the ears when it comes to not inciting dance parties, You Can Have It So Much Better is a testament to the group's wit and creative abilities. But if this is a sophomore slump it's an impressive one. The band might have benefited from sitting on these tracks a while longer, allowing more time for wrinkles to be smoothed out and fluff to dry out. The album's title is a knowing wink to the band's mistakes and an assurance that improvement is on the way.

I Got Love For

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