Wednesday Music Reviews / Pajiba Music Staff
Music | November 26, 2008 | Comments ()
Here we go with round two of Wednesday music reviews (the early edition!) — we’ve got a full and diverse plate today, hopefully enough to drown out the incessant yammering of your annoying relatives on Thanksgiving. Please, do enjoy.
Guns N’ Roses: Chinese Democracy
It’s been such a long goddamn time since Guns N’ Roses were relevant that we sometimes forget… this used to be the biggest band on the planet. Seriously — shortly after the release, and subsequent blast to the top of of the charts, of Appetite for Destruction, there were cave dwelling troglodytes who could probably recite the lyrics to “Paradise City.” Their star burned bright and hot, and lasted for a good few years, through the mixed-quality releases of “Lies,” the “Use Your Illusion” albums, and the woefully weak “The Spaghetti Incident?” And then they faded into the ether, until news came about over a decade ago that they were working on a new release. Finally, 20 years after the release of Appetite, after 10+ years of lineup changes, producer changes, interrupted touring, leaked tracks, Axl eating his weight in meatball sandwiches, and God knows what other obstacles, Chinese Democracy has arrived.
The first track, “Chinese Democracy,” bore great promise. After a slow buildup, the guitar kicks in and all of a sudden… well, I’ll be damned. It’s Guns N’ Roses! It’s a fairly rockin’ tune, with good tempo changes, and some decent bursts and screeches from the guitar. Axl’s voice, however, is probably the weakest part of the song. It’s so overprocessed and has been fed and re-fed through the electronic blender that it sounds like it was generated by a computer — HAL meets Bret Michaels at its worst, Axl singing in front of an oscillating fan at it’s best. The next track doesn’t fare much better, and mixes promising riffs with disappointing production.
Is Guns N’ Roses missing a step? Perhaps — not only that, but diminished expectations after such a long wait don’t help things. Yet it’s true — Chinese Democracy is a thoroughly mixed effort. It moves away from their badass rock and roll roots, instead working through too many processors and soundboards and synthesizers. There are tracks that use drum machines (“There Was A Time” is one of the most egregious offenders), but with no real purpose. All of this over-producing makes no progress towards a new or innovative sound. Instead it sounds like they’re simply borrowing from 80’s synth pop, yet still trying to pass themselves off as a rock band. The two things that suffer the most are Axl’s voice and Slash’s guitars. Axl can still hit his high, screechy notes, but it occasionally sounds like most of the crappy pop that comes out these days — mixed and produced within an inch of its life. While there are some tracks that stand out vocally — “Scraped” is damn good once it works through it’s layered-multiple-vocal-tracks opening, and the horrendously titled “Riad N’ The Bedouins” allows him to flex a little muscle as well. The guitar, on the other hand, is criminally underused throughout. It’s a somewhat baffling choice — you were renowned for having one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, and yet on many tracks that takes a back seat. Sure, there are some bitchin’ solos, especially on “Riad N’ The Bedouins,” and he takes more of a drivers seat in “Shackler’s Revenge,” but it’s still a poor showing.
So what are we left with, after all these years? Well, there are some excellent tracks. “Scraped” is an enjoyable listen. The radio-friendly “Better” is good, if unoriginal-sounding. There’s a good deal of mediocrity to be found as well, especially the piano ballad “Street of Dreams” and the flat-out boring “Catcher in the Rye.” But there are also some absolutely atrocious tracks — “This I Love” sounds like a cat being raped in front of an orchestra, and the final track, “Prostitute” is completely derivative and sounds like one of the songs invented by fictional video game bands (though it does boast a pretty good, but too brief, guitar solo). It’s unlikely that Chinese Democracy ever really had a chance to live up to its expectations — too much of a waiting period, too much mockery was slung around, and expectations either too high or too low. Pretentious, self-indulent, petty and pseduo-intellectual song lyrics (and song titles) certainly don’t help, and in fact frequently annoyed me. To top it all off, the music landscape has changed so much, and while Axl and company tried hard to include elements of those changes, it sounds just like that — as if they’re trying too hard. Many people have said that Guns N’ Roses ceased to be relevant long ago, and Chinese Democracy, while it will likely sell at first, may well prove that to be true.
The Postmarks: By The Numbers
“Ah crap, is this a covers record?” I questioned myself as I realized I was listening to a reinterpretation of Nancy Sinatra’s Bond theme song “You Only Live Twice” on an album called By The Numbers. My eyes generally begin to roll instinctively when I hear about an artist I like doing a covers record and honestly, I’m conflicted as to why that’s such an internal automation for me. On the one hand, I crave original music from these artists, because with the sole exception of Cat Power, I fell in love/like with them due to their songwriting prowess. On the other hand, I can reflect and realize those artists had influences which taught and inspired them to write the songs that I fell in love with. In a way, whenever we begin adoring a band or artist, we are by proxy going ga-ga over whoever they grew up listening to and led them to pick up a guitar, microphone, whatever. So why shouldn’t we want to hear their versions of the songs that got them writing music in the first place?
It’s a dizzying dynamic to think about, at least for my simpleton brain, but ultimately, I told TK I was going to review the new Postmarks record and I’m going to stick to my word, regardless of personal judgmental inclinations. Interestingly enough, neither the Florida band’s debut from last year as a whole nor any particular track really stuck with me so much as their sound did. It’s light, airy, and mind-bogglingly relaxing, without crossing that oh-so-frightful line into bored-sounding indie-pop. Gentle guitars swimming in tremolo, warm keyboards, quiet percussion, and a laid back but still precious female croon all create an atmosphere so pleasant you might just not want to operate heavy machinery for a few hours after listening. You won’t fall completely asleep though, because they know to keep things just inflective enough so you’ll at least drift in and out of consciousness, witnessing the next string of pretty melodies float through the headphones.
In fact, just by choosing songs that are slightly in the public conscious but not overly so (no guilty pleasure-style mainstream pop songs, no terribly obscure snobbery), their covers record is able to demand a bit more direct attention and concentration than their last effort was able to. Sure, I had no idea that the opening track “One Note Samba” was originally by 1970s Bossa Nova superstar Antoni Carlos Jobim. Then again, ardent fans of the genre that I can only associate with a mental image of slow-motion hip-swaying probably won’t pick up on the fact that “OX4” is an elegant rendition of the song by Britpop forefathers Ride (one of three tracks on the record that I didn’t need to look up to find out who was responsible for the original). Likewise, those kids who played hackey sack in the courtyard of my high school probably would have picked up on the reconstruction of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” while I had to wait until The Postmarks re-envisioned the Sesame Street song “Pinball Number Count” to close out the disc until I recognized another one. If By The Numbers has one thing going for it before its musical competence is even analyzed, it’s that the sheer eclecticism of the band’s musical tastes makes for a simultaneously challenging and rewarding collection of covers.
Quality, however, is definitely up for debate. I find the glacial pace of their severely non-intrusive style calming and effusive, but others might get weary after a few tracks. In that case, I’d recommend going straight for their covers of The Ramones’ “7-11” and Blondie’s “11:59,” which both get as breakneck as the band can probably handle, with manic drumming and bass lines sublimated by the restrained vocals, but with the heart and energy that the originals encompassed. Ultimately, unless slowcore’s your game (it can certainly be mine depending on my mood), the entire album can be a bit of an extended lullaby to sit through. In my eyes, what makes By The Numbers a solid accomplishment is not so much the musicality that turned me on to The Postmarks in the first place, which is certainly tightened in many places on this record but mostly just repeated, but their ability to make a covers record sound like an actual record: cohesive, genuine, and generally enjoyable.
Kanye West: 808s & Heartbreak
[Roc-A-Fella, Island Def Jam Records]
You probably think it would be a whole sack-load of fun to be Kanye West, don’t you? You get to look pissed off at awards ceremonies, spell your first name with a capital Y depending on your mood, and spend your time playing Connect-4 with Beyoncé. What’s not to like? Well, the self-styled king of hip-hop wants you to know that he’s not too jazzed about being himself right now. On ‘Welcome To Heartbreak’ from his fourth album 808s and Heartbreak, for instance, he tells us of a friend whose “daughter got a brand new report card/And all I got was a brand a new sports car.” Spare a thought for a brother, please.
Not to diminish Kanye’s weltschmerz: after a year in which his beloved mother died and his engagement to fiancée Alexis Phifer collapsed, he is understandably feeling the pain - and this album is awash with it. Never has a hip-hop artist so exposed himself, and perhaps no pop artist either; we’re looking at Fiona Apple levels of anger and self-flagellation here. On ‘Coldest Winter’, which boasts the best beats of the album and some nifty old-school synth, he despairs, “Will I ever love again?” On ‘Heartless’ - a highlight of the album, with a sassy dancehall rhythm played out on flute-like keyboards - he spits, “How could you be so/ Cold as the winter wind when it breeze yo”. (How much do you love that ‘yo’?) And on the almost unlistenably raw hidden track ‘Pinocchio Story’, he wails tremblingly about wanting to become “a real boy”.
This is a huge departure for Kanye and for a hip-hop listenership: such depth of feeling is unheard of, amongst even the most iconoclastic of artists. The thing is, this isn’t strictly hip-hop - West is going for an R’n’B auto-tune sound a la T-Pain, with subdued arrangements toeing a line between orchestral and electro. It sounds like nothing else around. But while it’s wonderful for him to be adventuring so far out of his comfort zone, he really is uncomfortable here: his singing and phrasing are weak, and his lyrics, shorn of their erstwhile irony, references, jokes and word-play, are clumsy. You yearn for the verve, energy and enthusiasm of, say, ‘Touch The Sky’.
Nevertheless, there is some typically ace production from Kanye here, and there’s plenty to enjoy: the tribal drums of ‘Love Lockdown’ offer a moment of levity, and when he lets loose on ‘Paranoid’, with its clack-clack synth-pop beat, it’s frankly joyful. Also, check out the glockenspiel on ‘Robocop’. Fucking glockenspiel! It will be thrilling to see where he goes next, after this hit-and-miss adventure.
Q-Tip: The Renaissance
Also bemoaning the glitzy lifestyle at the moment: Q-Tip! The ex- Tribe Called Quest frontman has finally released a new album — his last one came out before Kanye’s first — and it’s a terrific return to form for him. Listening to the aptly titled The Renaissance, you can hear his influence over artists like Common (on ‘Won’t Trade’ where he riffs magnificently over a piano loop and soul sample), Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli. His production is impeccable and his flow is flawless: ‘Manwomanboogie’ has Stevie Wonder-style drums, handclaps, and a bassline that’s fartier than a Seinfeld segue, while ‘Move’ begins with Outkast-ish brass-funk and ends with a sweet, quiet, intelligent rap over a pattern of whistling. There are some weaker moments - ‘Gettin’ Up’ is a standard jam, and ‘Dance on Glass’ is forgettable - but overall this teems with the sort of urgency that’s so sorely missing from his more innovative inheritor, Kanye West, at the moment.