Wednesday, June 02, 2004

"Overnight Celebrity" - Twista featuring Kanye West
#6 this week, #6 last week, 11 weeks on the chart

Here's the second appearance of motor-mouthed Twista since I relaunched this project. The follow-up to "Slow Jamz" is cool, and I like a lot of the production a bunch, but it doesn't gel for me as a song. There is no single moment that I can latch onto -- a little in-joke, or a vocal hook that lodges itself in my brain. Of course, there are things we're supposed to notice: Twista's hyperspeed vocals, West's sing-songy chorus, etc., but none of them - for me - create that really satisfying sense of fun that comes with a great pop tune (and certainly did so with the hilarious/sexy "Slow Jamz").

I do like the beginning a fair bit, though grimace when I imagine stodgy old LA session string players performing this at the Grammys or some shit. Either way, it's a cool little tension builder (like the crashingly bombastic orchestral flourishes that would often begin old Sinatra sides). There's that bit of braggadocio ("you didn't think we could do it again...") and the drums somehow overtake the orchestra, which simultaneously accelerates and fragments into stuttered samples. Great effect. It's a great 30-second tag opening, then into the chorus.

West's chorus drives the point home, before handing off to Twista. A lot of Twista's appeal is his virtuosity, I think -- something about the way he is able to effortlessly overlay rhythms atop his precise delivery. I like that, too. (Though I also suspect he might be looked back on as the Yngwie Malmsteen of rappers, where it'll later be revealed that the whole thing was a ProTools-altered sham...)

The collage of samples and production throughout the song - which switches, quasi-episodically, between Twista and West - is subtly astounding. The beats meld perfectly with the string samples, as well as a twinkling little piano figure that's too fast to be an arpeggio, but too slow to be a chord (is there a word for that?). There's also a sample of singing woman. Together, all of these elements syncopate grandly, locking in around each other. Unfortunately, they never quite transcend themselves, never quite combine themselves into that magical arrangement of elements unglimpsable during the song's opening.

I do quite like the bit later in the song when West proclaims "see baby girl, you see how you make a brother break down" as the fractured beats suddenly smooth back out into a "live" orchestra. That, too, is a cool effect -- a sonic/technical feat, at the very least. After that, though, it jumps back into the chorus, which I think is unfortunate. I think I'd like this song more if there were more attention paid to its architecture -- the way it flows, and the way it ends. Likewise, after the intro, it's a fairly simple ABABCAB structure (or something), where the C ("see baby girl...") reaches no further out than to reprise the intro. I wish it went deeper.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

"The Reason" - Hoobastank
#5 this week, #8 last week, 11 weeks on the chart

There's definitely something afoot here. Well, maybe not definitely, but I do find it a mite interesting that the #5 slot, both this week and last, has been occupied by an honest-to-"Bob" guitar-driven band playing a song with fairly normal/innocuous verse/chorus/verse songs. Last week, it was Maroon5, who slipped down to #7 this week. This time, it's Hoobastank (whose name I remembered from a walk with my friend Paul around lower Manhattan, repeatedly reading their name on construction site wall posters, and collapsing into hysterics at our exaggerated elongated pronunciation of "Whooooooo-bah").

When I was driving around Los Angeles last month, I was flipping through the radio stations on my aunt's car, and found some station playing one of the cuts from The Postal Service album. The station announcements informed me breathlessly that I was listening to "The Indie" (or some variation thereof) the same way Z1000 in New York used to brag about being "the alternative station" (or some variation thereof). The Indie, as I read later, was just another ClearChannel station. The intro to Hoobastank's "The Reason" kind of reminds me of that feeling -- a half-second rush of excitement that maybe something cool has triumphed, followed by a muted acceptance that the reality is actually very different.

"The Reason" begins with a repeated piano note. It is joined, at three seconds in, by a cool modern sounding beat. At six seconds, an icily spider-like guitar figure is uncoiled. Both very cool. At 12 seconds come a sorta cheesy bassline. It doesn't feel wrong, exactly, 'cause it still seems like a cool song could be made out of those elements. Then, at 14 seconds, things veer off horribly. The vocal melody comes in and, like The Indie, "The Reason" turns out to be just another mid-tempo love ballad. In fact, it hit a peak that is uncannily similar to Clay Aiken's "Solitaire" (and achieved with a power metal-sorta build) when they get to the first, dramatic "and the reason is yoooooooooooooooou" (after that, it's more like metal).

By the end of the song, when all of the elements have been cycled into the ground, it's almost embarrassing for me to admit that I was even fooled by them during the song's intro. All the pop trappings are added - synthesizer, strings, even giant "Disarm"-style bells - and it loses whatever it was that was interesting about it during its opening seconds.

Monday, May 17, 2004

"This Love" - Maroon5
#5 this week, #5 last week, 15 weeks on the chart

In the upper reaches of the chart, like a team 15 games ahead of the nearest competition at All-Star Break, Usher is doing battle with himself ("Burn" and "Yeah," flip-flopped between the first and third spots this week). It's boring in some ways but insistently enthralling others. Meanwhile, a few slots down, there's a surprise in store -- one that I'm still not sure if I understand correctly. If their AMG entry is to be believed, Maroon5 is an actual rock band (they've got, y'know guitars) from New York, recording for a genuinely independent label (Octotone). It seems like a Spin Doctors story, since their album, Songs About Jane, came out in 2002. But wherever they came from, here they are.

"This Love" really does crossbreed indie and pop-circa-2004. Atop a decidedly hip-hop beat are stabbing guitars and a singer who sounds (to my ears) uncannily like Woody Ranere from Lake Trout. In fact, come to think of it, the whole package sounds like Lake Trout during the verses (kinda minimalist jungle rhythms with an assured dry melody). When they hit the chorus, Maroon5 is definitely pop -- albeit made with a weird fusion of hip-hop/reggae/ska-punk (ie. those indie guitar stabs sped to stuttered upbeats and threaded with a syncopated vocal line). And if they didn't make the point with the chorus, the all-soul bridge emphatically drives it home: they are all of these things.

But, ultimately, the switch between the verse and the eventual bridge is drastic. The mood in the verses is decidedly cool -- a narrator in fine, even refined, control of himself. The chorus's switch to sexy pop-mode works. The singer is still playing high status ("her heart is breaking in front of me"), or trying to, but then comes that bridge, where the singer breaks down to pleading ("I'll fix these broken things, repair your broken wings, and make sure everything's alright...") and reveals in his inner softy who's happy to, say, listen to Enya if it makes his girlfriend happy. It's a cool little trick of musical narrative.

It's also kind of a depressing song, a break-up song or maybe a make-up-in-resignation song. There haven't been many of those, at least while I've been watching the charts, and I wonder what that means in relation to the national psyche (or maybe just in relation to the psyche of the Independent Promoters and other keepers of the gated playlists). And just in time for summer, too, huh? I gotta admit, I'm confused on that level, however well the song is written (and, as the song cycles for its eighth play on iTunes, I've come to admit that it's quite clever). No shit? Does this turn in mood have anything to do with a turn in current events? The UFOs' arrival over Mexico? That's probably a stupid assumption to make. The only thing to do, I suppose, is to keep watching the skies.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

"Naughty Girl" - Beyoncé
#4 this week, #4 last week, 8 weeks on the chart

Been a while. Almost a month, folks. (Say, are there folks? Drop me a line if there are. I never bothered to install a counter on this thing.) In the time I was gone, it doesn't look the top three have shifted at all, so I guess I didn't as much as I feared. At number four this week, same as last, is what somebody recently called the "single of the summer" -- Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl." I can definitely see that happening. The song doesn't feel like an event or a defining/epic musical destination. The way some songs are meant to hit you big, some are meant to not so much hit you as slide around you. "Naughty Girl" is one of those. It's really undramatic. It's kind of just a groove that I can easily imagine in the background of summer weather -- a cool contemporary groove, at that.

It's definitely the center of the song. The tune begins with (and is based around) a repeating funk guitar riff. It's like the guitar figure is the alpha male and everything else that comes into the mix must fix itself relative to that part. And they do -- which is precisely what maintains the ear's interest throughout. The first sample is just a Zeppelin-like quasi-Egyptian string thang, which begins at the beginning of the pattern. A wash leads to Beyoncé's intro vocal, soaring over the changes, then different Egyptian string parts, which disappear intermittently (and not predictably) during the verse. The first cool trick comes when Beyoncé's voice suddenly doubles one of the rising exotica samples and finds itself then doubling the main funk riff. I like the effect -- two figures that were once laid atop one another (string sample and the funk riff) are now laid back-to-back linearly. I'm not sure if there's term for that or not, but it's satisfying to me as a listener -- it makes the pre-chorus of the song feel inevitable, which then feeds to the title chorus which feels like a release from everything that's come before.

The chorus, though, doesn't feel dramatic. There's a slight rise in the melody to let you know that it's the chorus, but it doesn't soar or anything. It barely moves -- which is why it feels like a summertime song. It's not aggressive about making you wanna dance. If you're dripping in the heat fanning yourself with a newspaper, the song still feels right. On the other hand, I can imagine the song having a pleasantly sultry impact on the dance floor. In fact, the song feels like a dizzying heatwave where one must beat it or be beaten. The song capitalizes on that feeling in a sexy, confident way.

Monday, April 12, 2004

"Burn" - Usher
#5 this week, #10 last week, 6 weeks on the chart

Usher, whose "Yeah!" has been nestled at number one since I relaunched this blog a month or two back, is now competing with himself in the Top 10. It's a ballad, a love song (and a solo one at that), but retains the performative structure, where it flows from section to section in a... well, I want to say "cinematic," but that doesn't feel right. It's more "episodic," or something other metaphor that can be tied to television. The idea of the beginning, middle, and end do seem important to this kind of songwriting, even if that beginning/middle/end isn't literally tied to a plot.

So, "Burn" begins with a quick spoken intro over, first, noise, then, strings and mellotron (I think). For the first two seconds of the song (noise and "I don't understand... why...") it sounds as if the song could kick in with one of those sharply mixed techno grooves. Instead, Usher's voice changes, the strings establish themselves, and it makes the turn/commitment to be a slow tune. I love the way the keyboard and the strings work with each other, the keys sounding really sweet and romantic and ballad-like, in a way that would seem incongruous with strings that also sound really sweet and romantic and ballad-like... but it doesn't, and they don't. As the classical guitar comes in, this becomes the ambient base of the song, and the spoken part crests into an overemotive/soulful vocal (the strings drop out there).

There is no over-arching melody (at least one that jumps out), but - instead - there are lots of very small hooks ("I do but you don't", a quick jump to falsetto, an almost South African vocal break later on, etc.) that are predominantly rhythmic. I like that, actually, even if it's not as elegant as having one really good melody. They're like little nooks for the ear to discover (and definitely lend to the picaresque - there's the word! - effect). The little blurp of white noise used to lead into the spoken intro also cues the chorus, and lets us know that we have achieved title. The picaresque is a neat trick. It makes music more playful, and keeps it from being entirely grandiose and serious. In terms of Usher, it also lets him find his own voice and way of singing.

As a follow-up to "Yeah," it seems like a good choice. If one imagines that the only two tracks by Usher that somebody knows are "Yeah" and this - and those are the only two that I know - then they serve to establish Usher as a character. And, since this is a slow song, the message would seem to be that, gee, Usher has depth. I'm not convinced of that yet, but "Burn" is a pretty impressive performance, even if Usher himself comes off as a tad hyperactive and eager to show off his vocal range.

Well, buckaroos, I'm off for some travel this week. I'm not sure if I'm gonna update next week, or the week after... but circumstances will tell.

Monday, April 05, 2004

"I Don't Wanna Know" - Mario Winans featuring P. Diddy and Enya
#4 this week, #9 last week, 8 weeks on the chart

There's a fantastic, fantastic article in The New Yorker this week by Jake Halpern about the Trackboyz and J-Kwon. I can't recommend it highly enough. It confirms what I suspected (or maybe wanted to suspect): that there is no firm, singular, one-way star system in the music industry. Sure, the right wheels need to be greased, and the right folks have to get paid, but - the point is - anybody who succeeds has to follow a long, hard path of greasing wheels and the like. That, in itself, is a talent with a certain accompanying skill set and even musical qualities. The Trackboyz are from St. Louis, and that's cool. The article talks about where/how they live, and generally paints a picture of how they got there.

I don't know much about Mario Winans - he appears to be predominantly a producer - but I can only imagine that he's had to beat his own path, especially if he's producing his own full-length debut. The first thing that jumps out at me about this song is a production thing: the drums are dominant with flaming oodles of practically ambient strings and keyboards and what floating beneath. There's a lot of stuff happening, but it's hard to make out any specifics. The second thing that jumps out (which I only noticed after a few listens) is the nature of the beat. On one hand, it's not insistent. It doesn't draw me in at all, and feels far too mellow to be effective in a club. But, the more I listen, the more I can get into it. Somehow, the tempo is just right. It's punchier than a ballad, but slower than anything else. Likewise, it's got a cool stuttered kick that doesn't quite repeat the same way each time. (I also like how it drops out for half-a-second before P. Diddy's solo.)

It begins with a bit of performative plot (a ringing phone, "let me call you right back, we're doing this mix tape right now...") and drops into a little spoken intro that's slathered in echo. The strings are impossibly distant, like Jordan and Daisy from The Great Gatsby listening to a symphony recording in a small corner of a vast, airy porch. I like the feeling of longing they create, both in general (their syrupy tone) and their liternalness (wanting to hear more). The chorus is catchy, and P. Diddy's appearance is pleasant enough (I swear he drops a line about Western Beef, which is hilarious), but the whole thing is just sleepy sounding to me.

Monday, March 29, 2004

"Solitaire" - Clay Aiken
#4 this week, first week on chart

I don't think I really like the music on the pop charts, or - at the very least - I don't find so much pleasure in them that I put them on when I'm listening to music outside the time I'm working on this weekly blog. But I've been getting into the idea of pop music as a game, comparing and contrasting these different songs and seeing what moves they're making in terms of the structure and hooks and all the little tricks that go into Top 5 pop (like the way "Good Vibrations" is often revered because it had different sections, used a theremin, etc.). Mike Doughty wrote that music isn't a technology and that it doesn't "progress." Well, perhaps, but try explaining that to genuinely pop songwriters and producers.

The number one record this week is "Solitaire" by Clay Aiken, who I gather was a contestant on American Idol. I'm not sure if this is the recording that's made the charts, but it appears to be taken from a live taping. (Even if it's not the one that's on the chart, it's the one that's circulating on the networks, so that probably says something.) There's a crowd that cheers for half-a-second at the beginning. And, then, the performance. The two things that jump out immediately for me are the fact that it's barely longer than a minute long (which can be explained by the fact that was for a segment of a television show), but also that it's a real performance by one person (a sharp contrast to all of the other songs I've listened to for this project) singing in the traditional image of pop (as opposed to hip-hop).

I've never seen a full episode of American Idol, though I remember reading a commentary somewhere that the contestants on the show essentially present a composite of some subconscious idea about both what talent and pop music should be. I like that argument -- especially because this conception of pop music and virtuosity is nothing at all like the other things that have been in the Top 5 lately. That's not to say that it's an original-sounding song. It's not; precisely because it does seem to represent subconscious ideas about talent and what pop should be. It's a bit of a paradox.

The song is very straightforward: a band backs a singer singing of heartache. But, at the same time, it doesn't really follow the formula because it's boiled down for television. Everything has to be condensed into just over a minute. It just cuts to the chase. Fuck this verse/chorus shit, "Solitaire" is just one big build towards The Big Note at the end. That Big Note is the song's calling card and, even though it's a moment that's not repeated, it serves as the hook. After all, the song was performed to demonstrate Aiken's vocal agility, and The Big Note is the most agile of 'em all. That's all that's important, really. I don't think people really listen to the lyrics on a song like this. Though it appears to be a narrative (there's a "he" and a "she" and some elements of time and a story) there's nothing one could reasonably flesh out without liberal doses of imagination. Key words pop out "solitaire," of course, which comes up in different places (the lyrics of the song are just one extended metaphor). Clearly, the song (or this arrangement of it) is arranged for a showcase performance.

I like, then, how the equation changes. I feel like there could be a cool flow chart made to demonstrate this (like something offa "Last Plane to Jakarta," except a little less ironic). The first box is "Idea of Pop Song," with an arrow into two successive boxes, labeled "Television" and "Demonstration of Virtuosity," and a resulting box, labeled "Idea of Pop Song (x)" (where "(x)" represents the transformation). Right. The point is, it's something unique and different than what got fed into it to start.

What's bizarre is that the song begins with applause (to cue the listener into the fact that this is, in fact, live, a real/"real" performance), but there are no applause at the end. You'd think there would be, to underscore the fact that the crowd reacted wildly. But maybe there is a good reason. Presumably this is getting played on the radio. Without that applause, the song would just have to feed instantly into whatever's next. Since the Big Note is also the last note, there's no time for anything but a super-quick crossfade, or the DJ (or robo-DJ) runs the risk of ruining the song (though maybe they do). That's probably gives the song even more visceral impact, leaving one a little dizzy as the next song begins, still trying to assimilate what he just heard. Maybe. That's sort of my conception of it. Some time, next time I'm on a long car trip (a few weeks, actually), maybe I'll put on a pop radio station and see how much I recognize, and how it works in context.

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