Grimes Review: Art Angels

Grimes

Art Angels

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Claire Boucher aka Grimes has a lot in common with pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen. Beyond both being Canadian, each know how to write a dance pop song (for Carly Rae: see “Call Me Maybe”, for Grimes: see “Oblivion”) and have just an incredible knack for melody. Their voices are sweet but small, and both write their own music (something a little uncommon for pop singers).

But that’s where the comparisons end. Carly Rae looks the part of a popstar and also acts the part: she writes songs meant to be big pop hits and gets huge producers to help create that sound including Dallas Austin (Michael Jackson, Madonna), Max Martin (Britney Spears, ‘N Sync), and Josh Ramsay (Nickelback and Simple Plan).  Grimes is not your normal popstar: she’s a weird art school nerd who loves anime and wears face paint onstage. She speaks her mind and produces and creates her sound all on her own. She’s able to make incredible pop songs without being so manufactured. If you ever see Grimes live (which I encourage you to do so), she absolutely works overtime: she creates all the accompanying music on keyboards and her laptop, does all the singing, and even does plenty of dancing. She’s in complete control and constantly moving.

On her fourth album Art Angels and first in nearly four years since her debut Visions, Grimes amps up the pop but also the weirdness, making for an irresistible record that really only she could make.

Last year around this time, Grimes scrapped the album she was working on, saying “it sucked”. The one song released from that scrapped album was “Go”, which was ultra-catchy and put her more in the EDM world, a more radio-friendly sound. She even came out saying she couldn’t stand her biggest hit “Oblivion” and didn’t like any of her singles. Because of all those comments, my assumption was this second attempt at the album would be creative but definitely not very catchy. But boy was I wrong. These songs are propulsive, infectious, and could be found on any number of radio stations. The difference though is the quirk she finds a way to throw in.

The best example would be “Kill V. Maim”, obviously not your first choice for a pop song title, but the driving guitar line, teen star-like vocal, and cheerleader pre-chorus sound straight out of top 40 radio. However, “Kill V. Maim” is absolutely ferocious, with Grimes screaming like a death metal singer and using the beats to throw punches rather than just get you to dance. “California” is a bright, chiming pop song but it’s certainly not All-American like the Beach Boys: she borrows some Eastern and Oriental sounds to challenge your assumptions.  “Scream” is probably the biggest odd-man out as its Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes rapping over a locked-and-loaded bassline with a bunch of screaming thrown in just to keep you on your toes. That may sound strange, and sure it is, but it’s visceral and intense and just sounds plain cool.

It’s not all weirdness, and there is stuff here for people who could do with more dance music and less art school. The Electric Lady herself Janelle Monae is featured prominently on “Venus Fly”, a new feminist anthem that will have men and women alike moving to the beat. Closer “Butterfly” takes a bright, sunny melody and builds into the most optimistic and joyful song you will hear from Miss Boucher.

While Grimes is still young (just 24), I can only think of two other current artists that match her combination of pop songwriting and incredibly individualized creativity: Janelle Monae and St. Vincent. That’s some pretty solid company. While she doesn’t have nearly the experience and accomplish of those two yet, she certainly has the talent to do it. Art Angels is another giant leap forward.

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Can’t Miss: “Scream”, “Kill V. Maim”, “Venus Fly” “California”

Can’t Hit: None

El Vy Review: Return to the Moon

El Vy

Return to the Moon

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When people think of Ohio indie rockers the National, they probably think of sort of sad, existential music. With all the theatrics the Dessner brothers are able to drum up and lead singer Matt Berninger’s deep baritone voice, the National’s sound is wholly distinct but also full of melancholy. But sometimes with all that heaviness you just need a spritzer. Matt Berninger’s latest project with Brent Knopf of the playful, dynamic Texas band Menomena is that just right change of pace: a quick, relatively light record that makes the most of Berninger’s soulful vocals but especially his sense of humor.
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The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs Review

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs

Greil Marcus

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Rock ‘n’ roll music as its evolved has become harder and harder to define. You often hear a couple different approaches to define rock ‘n’ roll: either talking about the music itself (any type of music coming out of a combination of blues, country, New Orleans jazz, and gospel) or the spirit of the music (youthful and rebellious).

When defining the history of rock ‘n’ roll, legendary rock critic Greil Marcus argues in his new book The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs that simply looking at who is in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland isn’t enough. Marcus was the first reviews editor for Rolling Stone, in certainly would belong in a museum of his own if there was one for rock journalism. After listing every inductee into the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, Marcus states there is no better way to capture and define rock ‘n’ roll then the music itself, then defining ten songs that characterize the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll.

The ten songs chosen are by no means the obvious choices in terms of the most monumental (that would be more “Rock Around the Clock”, “God Save the Queen”, etc) or the most comprehensive (almost every song here was written in the late 50’s or early 60’s), but it’s certainly a fascinating choice of ten songs. Like any good critic, Marcus uses the 10 songs as a gateway into a larger theme, idea, or emotion that a large portion of rock music encompasses. Marcus uses Joy Division’s “Transmission”, the second newest song on the list, as a way to explore rock’s sense of rebellion against the absurdity of life. He uses “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” by Buddy Holly and “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong to talk about the Beatles, their covers of each song, and what it meant to the band at that point in their careers.

“Shake Some Action” by the Flaming Groovies – Just one of the ten songs Marcus chooses.

 

The book doesn’t just talk about one version of each song, but for each song, discusses several versions of the songs, and in many occasions, admits the original wasn’t the best of the bunch. “To Know Him Is to Love Him”, a doo-wop tune first done by Phil Spector’s band the Teddybears, is discussed more in terms with Amy Winehouse’s version, and how the song was actually truly meant for her, nearly 60 years after it was written. There is also far more than 10 songs discussed, as this is truly a pretty loose structure for which Marcus shares his observations and ideas on any number of things: Robert Johnson’s legacy, the horrific murder of James Byrd, Jr., the ordinary brilliance of Buddy Holly, or the troubled life of Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Marcus’s writing works a lot like his brain: moving from association to association, and if you don’t pay close enough attention, you’ll be wondering why he’s talking about the Superbowl half-time show when he was talking about Etta James.

Above all else, Marcus’s gift for description is unprecedented to anything else I’ve read on music. It’s no secret music can be hard to describe, but Marcus explains the sounds, emotion, and movement of the music better than anyone else I’ve read. The incredible detail and surprising metaphors give you a much deeper appreciation of the music, and truly bring each of these songs to life, even if you couldn’t care less about the Cyndi Lauper. It makes you want to relive each and every song, which in a perfect world, is what music writing should do.

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The Wrecking Crew Review

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In recent years, music documentaries have been covering the unsung heroes of music, from the mysterious artists (Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man and Fantastic Man about Nigeria’s William Onyeabor), to the spaces and behind-the-scenes people that create classic sounds. There’s been a recent string of music studio documentaries about the magic of some famous studios, from Dave Grohl’s Sound City to the southern mysticism of Muscle Shoals. A couple years ago, 20 Feet from Stardom even won a “Best Documentary” Oscar for its tremendous history and day in the life of some of the greatest backup singers. The Wrecking Crew! Looks at the biggest hitmakers of all time, L.A.’s recording band The Wrecking Crew. On a larger scale, the documentary looks at the lost art of the session band: musicians that could by hired and relied on in an instant to play anything you dreamed up.
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CHVRCHES Review: Every Open Eye

CHVRCHES

Every Open Eye

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When a band releases a huge smash debut that’s a critical and commercial success, I strangely feel sympathy for the band. Why? Well to follow up a debut that is the creative culmination of everything you’ve put together from your childhood until now in a year or two has to be overwhelming, and that’s not to mention fan’s crazy high expectations. It’s sort of a no-win situation for their second record.
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