Friday, August 31, 2007

Kanye West: Graduation

Kanye West needs no introduction. Mr. West has done it again. He's back here with Graduation; the trifecta of his education themed albums. For the most part, this album is tight, focused, and everything you expect from a Kanye album. He's bombastic, pompous, creative, and brilliant. Musically, lyrically, and production wise every album Kanye has put out is ridiculously creative and fresh. The skill it takes to find (obscure 70's soul tracks to sample), mix, and insert catchy beats, takes enormous effort and imagination.

"I guess this is my dissertation / Homey, this shit is basic, welcome to Graduation" Kanye raps in the beginning of "Good Morning (Intro)" to set the tone of the album. Track to track this is one of Kanye's strongest efforts yet. There are few weak spots on this album. The only tracks that I've skipped over and have been disappointed with are "Drunk and Hot Girls" and "I Wonder." Of the two, "Drunk and Hot Girls" is the most infuriating to me. Mos Def is a highly talented free-style MC and all he has is a little sing-songy part near the tail end of the song and that's about it. After listening to this song a few times I don't know what Kanye was thinking, and where the track fits in with the rest of the album. I know what he's trying to say with the song, but doesn't adequately utilize the skills that Mos brings to the table.

I don't want to break down each track because that would be superfluous. The strongest tracks are the aforementioned "Good Morning," "Champion," "The Glory," "The Good Life," as well as the singles: "Stronger," and "Can't Tell Me Nothing." After one listen it's easy to understand why "The Good Life" will be the third single, and even more clear after appearing in the closing credits of a recent episode of Entourage featuring Kanye West and his MarquisJet. The coupling of Mr. West and Coldplay main-man Chris Martin shouldn't go unnoticed either. While this seems like two worlds colliding for a mess, it is anything but. Mr. Martin creates a great hook for Mr. West and the magic goes from there.

The Beat Konducta

I was challenged by a friend to expand my musical horizons and try to incorporate more genres and tastes that aren't my normal "Go To" selections. With that being said, I spun the brand new offering from Beat Konducta a.k.a Madlib entitled Beat Konducta in India Vol. 3-4 released on Stones Throw Records. Madlib has so many aliases it's sometimes hard to keep track, but he has a distinct production style that carries across all of them so a listener never feels too lost or confused. I was first introduced to Madlib thanks to his brilliant collaboration with MF Doom on Madvillainy. He's one of the most prolific producers working today, along with being one of hip-hop's most well respected producers. Madlib has produced beats for the likes of Ghostface, Talib Kweli, to the late J Dilla.

India uses samples and dialog from Bollywood to create an album that juxtaposes conventional Indian musical themes of rag and tal (melody and rhythm) with Madlib's production style of deep bass drums, claps, cymbals, et al. Overall, the album ebbs and flows from one track to the next since most are between 1-2 minutes in length. Madlib displays a meticulous attention to detail throughout the album's hour of music and finds delight in the minutia. What makes the album "sound Indian" are the samples. Since traditional Indian music uses different scales than Western music, it creates different harmonies which are foreign to our ears. This is an album supremely crafted from start to finish and would be an interesting soundtrack to a Bollywood movie. The details and layers of sound Madlib uses are executed with a deft touch and precision that exemplifies why he is rising to the top of the class in the world of hip-hop production. Some tracks stand out more than others and are better suited to standing alone outside the context of the album. Hope you enjoy the few I've picked out.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Richard Julian

I don't remember exactly why I had been searching for Richard Julian's album Slow New York, but it quickly didn't matter once I began listening. Mr. Julian's rough-around-the-edges voice mixed with his deft guitar work immediately make the ears perk up. His lyrics tend to speak to life in the Big Apple while retaining "an unsentimental, yet tender meditation on the joys and disappointments of everyday living." Harp Magazine continues by saying, "Julian [displays] nimble lyricism as he sings his character-driven, keenly observational songs. With each clever, low-key, dusky line, he shows why we should sit up and notice him." On the flip side, a one Andy Hermann claims, "Richard Julian is one of those guys who's always this close to writing a great song. At his best, his prickly New York folk-rock bristles with wit and intelligence, but at his worst, he's capable of the kind of preciousness that would make James Taylor cringe. Too often, he veers between these two extremes within the same song, undermining his own brilliance with labored rhyme schemes and unconvincing stabs at soulfulness." Personally, I see how Hermann can say this since I'm usually pretty cynical and leery of musicians trying to be weighty or too witty, but Mr. Julian didn't do that too me. I took the songs in their context and enjoyed each of them for what they were. Not groundbreaking and not too witty upon the first couple listens. I supposed that repeated listens to songs like, "End of the Line" about being angry at a fellow customer cutting the line in a store would quickly grow stale.

One of the standout tracks though, is clearly "If A Heart Breaks," with it's boogie rhythm and catchy turn-of-phrase playing off the old philosophical question: Does a falling tree in the forest make a sound if no one is around to hear it? The album is noticebly well-produced as it should be thanks to Brad Jones the Nashville producer and bassist for Norah Jones. Norah even provides her sultry voice to backing vocals on a few tracks. Mr. Julian is familiar with this group due to his participation in the group The Little Willies with the likes of Ms. Jones. I think it's time to take a listen.

Kate Nash

I'm still a subscriber to Rolling Stone thanks to a generous birthday gift from a friend, and in the most recent issue (with Maroon 5 on the cover) I stumbled over Kate Nash in the "Hit or Hype" blurb section. Somewhat needless to say, they declared Ms. Nash to be a hit. I was immediately drawn in by their concise description of Ms. Nash's songs as a hybrid of Regina Spektor's poppy-piano (Ms. Nash sites as a main influence) laced with Lily Allen's U.K. sass. Almost immediately had to check this out.

Aside: {Of late, I've been disappointed with Rolling Stone. They missed the boat on the burgeoning indie-rock scene and chose to stay rigid with main-stream music. I wasn't around when RS was beginning, but I always got the feeling they tried to be cutting-edge or cater to parts of musical fringes. Someone had a great idea to have new sections in RS that detailed underground or upcoming artists discovered via blogs or MySpace. Even now a lot of the time, I find myself saying "old news" when I come across this section with each issue. This isn't my only gripe with the current RS. Their album reviews consistently lack bite. The most concise way for me to put it is: Grow Some Balls. I seriously believe I could put out an album and get 3/5 stars. Just go back and try and find something with less than 2 stars. It has become very rare. Be daring. Say an album isn't worth finishing. Say an album has as much musical talent as a barking dog. Say an artist's new album isn't nearly as good as their previous effort. Whatever. Say certain albums aren't good. Plain and simple. Glad I got that out of my system.}

Kate Nash. Wow. I feel like I'm discovering Lily Allen again. This girl has it. She's cute. She's got a great voice and plays both keys and guitar. Pop sensibilities with a "indie" / unconventional edge. And she's snarky enough to be risqué yet maintains an endearing realness and likability about her.

Press has been fluttering around, but really came to a head in the U.K. when her single "Foundations" debuted at #2 on the U.K. charts. This caused quite a stir at the record company who pushed her debut album (Made of Bricks) release up 5 weeks to Aug. 6th and that debuted at #1. Yes you read that correctly, #1 on the U.K. charts. Just yesterday Geffen records announced they would release her Foundations EP on September 4th. Again, like Ms. Allen, her full-length debut won't see U.S. shelves till early 2008 for who knows why. Most certainly by then U.S. fans will know the songs by heart, and sing them back to Ms. Nash when she makes her way stateside in support of the release. The NY Times got in on the early buzz about Ms. Nash recently saying such things as, "she has a knack for songs that seem to have been written and recorded with a minimum of fuss, time or money. Accompanied by beats built around plinkety-plink piano or strummed guitar, she delivers singsong narration and sneakily infectious refrains." Perfect. Time to take a listen and hear what the fuss is all about. Enjoy.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Vampire Weekend

I really enjoy the Stereogum "Bands to Watch" Archives
because I've found a number of great bands and artists that are kind of bubbling to the surface. To me, each of these examples comes close to explaining aurally why I enjoy music so much. Better yet, they go far to explaining why I love finding new music and telling everyone I know about it. The current example is a band named Vampire Weekend. Generally speaking, this name alone would scare me away because it makes me think of a hard-core grunge/metal band that screams and loves playing power chords on their 6-string basses. This couldn't be farther from the truth. These guys are so far under the musical radar that their AllMusic Guide entry looks like this (if you don't want to click, I'll tell you that it's blank and all it gives is where they're from and when they started playing music). They are getting some buzz as noted on their website's Press link. Either way, I'm eagerly awaiting their full length debut come January 2008 and hoping for more singles along the way. Below is a song off their EP that will hopefully leave you with a good feeling in your eardrums.