Sunday, March 13, 2016

New reviews of old albums (1)

Maybe this will become a series, or may it'll be a one-off, but I've decided to write a short review of a couple of albums I finally got around to listening to in the last couple of weeks.  Back in Arlington, VA, the library system stopped buying music CD's a few years ago, but I've recently discovered the Dallas Public Library is pretty up to date when it comes to music (for instance, they've got the newest Disclosure album).  So I'm hoping to easily catch up on some releases without having to buy or torrent.

First up have been the last two albums released by Gil Scott Heron before he passed away in 2011.  In 2010 he put out "I'm New Here"and 2011 saw the release of "We're New Here", which was billed as a remix of the entire album by Jamie XX.  Both came out on XL recordings.  I'm glad that my lateness has meant that I've been able to hear both records back to back, as that's been an interesting experience.

I got "I'm New Here" a couple of weeks before the Jamie XX remix version.  Overall, it's a good album, and it really does work as an album.  To me it seems like a goodbye album, as if Scott-Heron knew it was going to be one of his final pieces of work and wanted to wrap things up.  He talks about his life and how he was raised, the people involved in him turning into the man he became.  It's a bit like the final Bowie album in that it seems like music from a person who knows things are drawing to a close.  But unlike "Black Star", "I'm New Here" is much more straightforward lyrically, very direct and comprehensible.

While listening to it I did wonder about the production and how much input Scott-Heron did or didn't have in that regard.  It's quite stark, with mostly minimal beats and bass highlighting the lyrics and Scott-Heron's cadence.  I can easily imagine the voice tracks being laid down and then the production happening around them completely separately; I believe production was handled by the head of XL Recordings.  On the one hand it all sounds quite fine, but on the other it's very of it's time and I have a feeling it won't age well -- it's very electronic, very 2010, and it already sounds a bit dated.  That's a shame as it stops the album from feeling very essential, even though lyrically I feel like Scott-Heron has a lot to say. The track I'm putting here is a bit of an anomaly as it's one of the few that isn't so electronic:

Well, that may not sound wholly positive, but I do think it's an album worth checking out.  That's not something I can say about the Jamie XX version. I'm not sure what went wrong with "We're New Here" but I found it very disappointing. The title, and the write-ups at the time, made it sound like some sort of joint effort between Scott-Heron and Jamie XX, but it really is a remix album, and not in a good way.  The remixes are similar to a lot of more modern remixes in that there is barely a hint of the original songs left.  This is basically a Jamie XX album with some Scott-Heron samples, and even then, most of the time, the samples are so far in the background that it could be anyone.  In fact, for some of the tracks, having no Scott-Heron at all would probably have been better.  It's a disservice to him to just have snippets of his voice mumbling away behind everything else.  It really is quite jarring at times -- there really seems to be no connection between the music and the lyrics at all, for instance, in album opener "I'm New Here".  My guess is that it has something to do with the fact that Jamie XX was very early into his solo work when he did this; it almost seems like a practice run, which is OK, except it got released and was even well-reviewed when it came out.

So, to sum up, I do recommend checking out "I'm New Here", at least if you have some interest in the work of Gil Scott-Heron.  It's a good album with mostly good songs, and even if the production is a bit 2010 it's still not bad.  As for the Jamie XX version though, there is really nothing to recommend it, other than the novelty of hearing something so wrong -- I really do feel that strongly about it.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Not so guilty pleasures

It's time to drop any pretense of cool and admit to some completely mainstream pop that I'm liking -- I need to confess and this blog is the place to do it!  Actually, I've always liked top 40 pop music; not everything of course, but I was never too snobby about something being too mainstream, whether it was Tony De Bart or Take That.  Lately I've found myself (and I know I'm not alone, and that there is a hipster factor to take into consideration) grooving to "Sorry" by Justin Bieber.  I have a feeling this song is produced by either Diplo or Skrillex.  I've never really given any thought to the latter, but I remember Diplo from the mid-2000's, when he was more an up and coming producer and quite underground.  Now, despite what I said about not being snobby, I am full of contradictions, and part of me is thinking "Diplo has sold out!".  But another part, the better part, is OK with that, because at least he's bringing some good sounds to the masses!  Especially the US masses, who've been in need of quality pop for a long time.  When I first got here in the mid-90's the situation was particularly dire, and for a long time the best pop music, the most forward-thinking, was R&B and rap, which is why a British brown kid living in suburban Detroit was watching BET and had the local black radio stations tuned to the buttons in the car stereo.

I'm also liking the Zayn Malik solo stuff.  I'm not sure if it's first-mover advantage, or the cool that comes from being good-looking and an ethnic minority, but I don't think any of the other boys from One Direction could pull off the solo career that Zayn may be able to.  All he has to do is pick the right songs and the right producers and he should be all set.  It's funny how pop is now -- not too long ago, a song like "It's You" would've been thought of as quite weird and underground, and probably would've been championed as some great twisted indie R&B, but in 2016 it's being put out by someone who was about as mainstream as you can get.  Again, I think it's great -- I'd rather good music be mass-market than crap music!

Lastly, Disclosure + Lorde.  I've heard this track a few times, and the last time I just thought to myself "this is perfect pop".  Lorde is on a different level of credibility than the two boys above, but it's all on the same continuum really.  Everything is cool now!  Or at least it can be.