Category: Reviews

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE

Frank Ocean: channel ORANGEI have no business reviewing Frank Ocean.

R&B is not a coverage area for I can no more describe the mertis (or demerits) of Kanye West, Cody ChesnuTT or Chris Brown than a writer from Vibe can weigh in on the Utada Hikaru vs. Hamasaki Ayumi debate.

But somehow Frank Ocean ended up on my year-end favorite list.

Here’s what I know.

Frank Ocean posted a notice on Tumblr describing the first person he fell in love with was a man. Gay bloggers picked up on the news. I read about Ocean’s coming out on Towleroad. I listened to channel ORANGE. I liked it. I bought it.

Was this purchase a vote for equality, a gesture of solidarity? Yes, partly.

I would also like to think it was vote of confidence for Ocean’s understated style. His tracks have a lot of room to breathe, and his voice isn’t a flashy display of TV competition histrionics.

“Pilot Jones,” for example, is little more than a beat, a smattering of effects and Ocean’s falsetto. He nearly crosses into the minimalist territory of James Blake on this track. “Sweet Life” starts with a piano and a jumpy bass, slowly adding a beat and eventually horns.

Even when Ocean goes for the dramatic, it’s never overhanded. The 10-minute epic “Pyramids” goes balls out on the first half but draws in for the second.

The crux of the album is “Bad Religion”, an astute observation of unrequited love: “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion.” It’s hard not to hear shades of “Purple Rain” in the organ intro, but Ocean’s raw delivery makes the track his own. “Bad Religion” is also a familiar refrain for anyone in love with the unattainable, especially when it’s nature conspiring with societal bullshit to create the barrier.

Since making his announcement, Ocean hasn’t made a definitive statement about his orientation. I hope he doesn’t. The political baggage would take away from the emotion of a track like “Bad Religion.” It’s nice to have that subtext, but it needn’t define the man nor his music.


Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven

Jeremy Denk: Ligeti/Beethoven

Ah, the étude — finger exercises disguising themselves as piano pieces, or piano pieces incorporating finger exercises.

Students of the piano cannot avoid exercise books from Pischna, Hanon, Czerny or Bürgmuller, but should they progress far enough into their studies, they might tackle études from Chopin and Debussy.

And if they’re really good, they might try a hand at the études of Györgi Ligeti.

Ligeti’s exercises may be less études than instruments of torture. More likely, it’s a composer known for his sense of humor punking the hell out of his students.

These études are not only a bear to listen to, they’re a bear to perform.

For his major label debut on Nonesuch Records, Jeremy Denk pairs Ligeti’s études with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32, the last of the composer’s sonatas. The resulting disc is dryly titled Ligeti/Beethoven.

But it’s a head-scratching juxtaposition. On one end is a towering figure of classical music with a mastery for melody, and on the other, a composer with a challenging sense of harmony. That’s double-speak for “dissonant”, the bugaboo adjective of classical music audiences.

But Beethoven’s late works sometimes possess a prescience for the harmonic chaos that came to typify the Twentieth Century. Alfred Schnittke more than demonstrated that by quoting the Grosse Fuge in his String Quartet No. 3. The second movement of the Sonata No. 32, with portions that Denk himself describes as “proto-jazz”, don’t feel entirely rooted in the Eighteenth Century.

(And anyone who’s watched Looney Toons will not doubt picture a Halloween scene with Bugs Bunny when the main theme of the first movement appears.)

Somehow, the pairing works. At a point where the Ligeti études seem ready to collapse on themselves, Beethoven emerges from the haze to recalibrate the listener.

Denk’s performance is athletic. He stabs at the opening “Désordre” with an aggression that makes the piece snarl. “Fém”, which the Bad Plus arranged marvelously for jazz trio, solidly pulsates, while the cascading lines of “Vertige” make Denk sound superhuman.

Ligeti’s pieces can get pretty intense, but hearing Denk tackle them is not so different from watching a gymnast nab that perfect 10. It seems impossible that anyone can navigate through all the shifting meters and clashing lines until someone like Denk shows you he can.



ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION: LandmarkWhenever I proclaim how much of a fan of ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION I’m not, someone somewhere is probably quoting Hamlet, Act III, Scene II: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Fine. After much ambivalence, I can consider myself an ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION fan, in the same way I was a reluctant Rufus Wainwright fan.

It’s tough to rag on a band with such an upbeat aesthetic, especially since said band provides some of the best workout music to bring to the gym.

But like their post-rock cohorts in MONO, ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION seldom strays outside the borders of their particular sound. It’s unlikely ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION will pivot and turn itself into an ’80s cover band.

That reliability is comforting, but it pretty much limits the creative range of their albums.

So what would an ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION album need to make a person eschew the Evil Sharing Networks and drop $30+ for a physical copy? For an answer, listen to World World World. On that album, ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION aimed for the grandeur of a concept album and came up with a winner.

When the band really concentrates on making their melodies the catchiest they can be — with arrangements that bleed out just enough from those strict creative borders — they make awesome work.

And Landmark is pretty awesome.

Chatmonchy’s Hashimoto Eriko complements singer Goto Masafumi wonderfully on the album opener “All right part 2”. The chorus, in particular, is a tough ear worm against which to defend.

“A to Z” builds up to a pretty majestic chorus, with a cavernous reverb that really opens the song up. “1980” has an easy swagger that makes it danceable, while “Sore Dewa, Mata Ashita” and “Taiyou Kourou” serve up the upbeat melodicism typical of an ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION release. “Anemone no Saku Haru ni” wraps the album up nicely with acoustic guitars and rising chords.

Unlike World World World, a concept doesn’t run through Landmark, but it doesn’t stop the album from being one of the band’s most coherent works. It’s tough to find filler here.

It’s easy to criticize ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION for recording the same album multiple times — really, what band doesn’t? — but when they hit their target, the results are completely satisfying.


Santigold: Master of My Make-Believe

Santigold: Master of My Make Believe

Santigold’s self-titled debut was a late discovery for me — by the time I got around to listening to it, two years had passed since its release. I can just imagine the anticipation of a fan who had been waiting four years for a follow-up.

But the sophomore album is a treacherous thing. The conventional wisdom in music circles is that it takes 5 years to write and to record a stellar debut, and only 2 years to match that success. It wasn’t heartening to hear Santigold’s label was pushing back on the material she was auditioning for what would become Master of My Make-Believe.

On first blush, Master of My Make-Believe doesn’t hit the listener over the head the way the self-titled debut did. It’s a reviewer’s death knell to use the phrase, “After a few listens …” In this case, the album eschews a direct attack for something far more subtle.

Those few listens allow the songs to burrow themselves in the subconscious in such a way that the the spit-fire verses of “Look at These Hos” play on repeat. In your head. Damn, this woman is tricky.

The robotic opening of “Freak Like Me” becomes an ear worm. “God from the Machine” reveals itself to be an infectious tune beneath a cover of Cocteau Twins ambiance. Catchy choruses on “The Riot’s Gone” and “The Keeper” anchor listeners as Santigold tosses dub, military marches and rock ‘n’ roll into an effortless brew. “Disparate Youth”, of course, serves as the reliable radio single, but even its tunefulness can’t temper Santigold’s mad scientist tinkering.

“Big Mouth” was the unlikely first single from the album, and when it appears at the end, the big picture snaps into place. Santigold is every bit of the creator she was the first time out, and while Master of My Make-Believe may not be as brash as its predecesor, it’s every bit as bold and tuneful.

No. Not a sophomore slump at all.


Duran Duran: All You Need Is Now

duran_duran_-all_you_need_is_now Mark Ronson got it.

Duran Duran’s producers on its last four albums didn’t, none more spectacularly than Justin Timberlake. But Mark Ronson, being an avid fan of the band, did. What did he get? The understanding of what constitutes a Duran Duran album.

Many articles and reviews have already paid lip service to Ronson’s goal of making All You Need Is Now, Duran Duran’s 13th studio album, the never-recorded sequel to Rio. So too does this Johnny-come-lately review.

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On (and off) the playlist, or listening since July 2011

It’s two months shy of a year since I last posted an “On the playlist” column. A year!

I’m thinking back to what was happening in my life these past 10 months that would prevent me from posting, and the only thing that comes to mind — aside from moving from one part of the country to another — is work. Did my last job suck so much time and energy that I couldn’t bring myself to write? The answer would have to be yes. The scant entries written after I started that job sure seem to mention as much.

My posting record since moving to Seattle hasn’t improved greatly, although in my defense I did move blogging platforms and redesign the site. The current job is also keeping me busy, but it’s not the firehose of the last one.

So for this first “On the playlist” column in 10 months, I’m listing it all — everything that’s cycled on and off the Winamp playlist since the last column. At least, everything I can remember. And we’ll split it between pre- and post-move, starting with the latter …

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On the playlist, or 140 characters or fewer

I’ve always been a fan of conciseness.

Where other writers love to pack their prose with florid language, I go for economy. Less is more.

I signed up for Twitter back in Nov. 2006, and I knew right away I would love the challenge of summarizing moments of time within the strict limit of 140 characters. Twitter turns five years old soon, which means I’ve been expressing myself 140 characters (or fewer) at a time for half a decade.

Note that the previous entry in this blog is dated May 1, 2011. I haven’t posted anything here in a month and a half, and I think that Twitter ceiling has affected how I perceiving the medium of blogging. This here entry? Too many words.

It feels too expansive. It takes too much energy. In short, I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing in longer forms. It was that or blame the job for the lack of entries here.

You would think all that time away would allow me to dig up some awesome listening. I think maybe the quality releases were mostly stacked in Q1. Q2 seems a bit more elusive in finding the gems.

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Favorite Edition 2011: Quarter first

Now this is surprising — I can, with confidence, fill most of the slots on the Favorite Edition 2011 list in the first quarter. Usually I’ll find at most five albums that may become year-end favorites, and of course, no rank is guaranteed this early in the year. But after SXSW, I had what felt like an abundance of good listening, and in compiling this list, that sense became more concrete.

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On the playlist, or やっつけ仕事 (rush job)

As much I like my new-ish job — I’ve been there for nine months now — it doesn’t have any down time. There’s maybe enough time to check news feeds and a smattering of social media but nothing beyond that.

When I get home, I’ve got other things brewing — mixing and remixing Eponymous 4 tracks, learning HTML5, Flex and Ruby on Rails, reducing my body fat — and they eat whatever time and energy I could have spent writing an entry.

And writing takes quite a bit of energy.

So once again I make a half-assed list of all the music about which I should be writing more in-depth.

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