Monthly Archives: October 2013

Y.A.L.A.

M.I.A.’s fourth single from her upcoming fourth studio album Matangi came out last week and I haven’t been able to stop listening to it all weekend. Admittedly when I first heard it (just a snippet at the time), I thought “Yeah, it’s pretty good!” and not much else. Then it came back to haunt me a few days later and I had to find it again. It’s sneaky like that.

“Y.A.L.A.” – an acronym for “You Always Live Again” – is Maya’s response to Drake’s “The Motto,” which popularized that social media buzzword Y.O.L.O. That trite, hackneyed phrase wore out its welcome a long time ago, which is why I love everything about “Y.A.L.A.” Not only does it contradict the meaning of Y.O.L.O., but it also feminizes the phrase in a way. It made me think of that interview she gave to Pitchfork years ago when she called out sexism in the music industry and in music journalism. I feel like “Y.A.L.A.” is also partly a callback to that.

The vocals are a little shouty (I won’t be the first to admit it when I say that M.I.A. isn’t the world’s greatest singer – but she’s not terrible) but also enthusiastic. Besides, after giving a listen to Drake, I can’t say the same for “The Motto.” The beats in “Y.A.L.A.” are fantastically heavy and hypnotic, making this one a club hit for sure.

The primary theme of the song, as implied in the title, is the Hindu concept of reincarnation. M.I.A. invokes this theme in the hook, singing “Up and down that pole/Like you’re goin’ up a yo-yo.” Besides the yo-yo spinning around and around and up and down, I imagine a horse on a merry-go-round pole, also going up and down and around and around. It gives the illusion that you’re going somewhere, but you’re not – you’re literally just going in circles.

M.I.A. makes it clear that she’s sick and tired of people committing the same stupid and senseless acts that we’ve been committing for the entirety of human history. Murder, genocide, war, persecution of groups by other groups. “If you only live once, why we keep doing the same shit?” she asks at the song’s outro. No excuses, she wants an answer. “Back home where I come from, we keep being born again and again and then again and again./That’s why they invented karma.” So that we won’t keep making the same mistakes again and again, so that we can better ourselves and our world. But that’s not what we’ve been doing with our lives, is it?

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Origin of Symmetry

I’d been trying to deny all weekend that I was heading into a Muse bender (as I like to call it), but I finally accepted it Sunday night because, well, that’s all I was listening to all weekend. I had to think about which album I was going to choose for Tuesday though, so I settled on Origin of Symmetry.

There isn’t any particular reason why. It was between this and Black Holes and Revelations, my favorite Muse album. I chose Origin because while listening to it I remembered a conversation I had with a friend of a friend. She was a devoted Muse fan and had probably been so for longer than I had (I only got really into them about a year and a half ago). Her favorite album was Origin because, in her opinion, if I’m recalling it correctly, it was Muse at their very best.

As she was such a big Muse fan, I felt her opinion was worth giving some serious consideration. While “best” is a subjective term, I had to consider why a Muse fan might feel that way. I think this isn’t necessarily Muse at their best, but at their purest. Origin feels like their “Screw it, let’s just DO it” album. It’s experimental, maybe their most experimental. I mean, they use a church pipe organ on “Megalomania!” It’s Phantom of the Opera levels of dramatic. They’re giving it 110% and you can feel it. It’s like a direct injection of unfiltered Muse into your veins, and that might be why a Muse fan would consider it their best.

It isn’t for everyone though – it certainly wasn’t at the time it came out. Apparently, Maverick, their label at the time, wanted Matthew Bellamy to ease up on his trademark falsetto and plaintive wailing. Okay, admittedly it can get a little ridiculous at times (“Micro-Cuts” anyone?) but that’s what I love about it. I love that Bellamy and his band aren’t afraid to turn it up to 11 and don’t care what anyone thinks about it. It gives me major goosebumps, and I love it when music can have that kind of effect on me.

While not my favorite, Origin is an incredible sophomore effort, and it’s definitely up there for me. Stand-out tracks for me are “Bliss,” “Hyper-Music,” “Plug In Baby,” “Futurism,” and their cover of “Feeling Good.” So almost half the album. Not bad for not even being my favorite, right? I can still say it’s really, really good. And I think it’s their excess of passion that does it for me. Too much for some? Sure, I can see that. Just right for Muse fans? Absolutely.

P.S. I may love Muse, but I really hate rock videos. The music video is a completely different medium and art form to explore – Why waste it jumping around and swaying your head with your eyes squeezed shut? Anyway, “Bliss” features the least amount of that sort of nonsense, which is why I chose it. I still can’t get over that spiked hair that was so damn popular at the turn of the millennium though. So bad, ugh.

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I Win!

I have a little confession. I used to watch American Idol–and not just for the bad auditions. I didn’t watch it every season, but when I did, it was with a fair amount of loyalty. I’ve always wanted to be exposed to new music at every opportunity though, so I’m not sorry for it. After all, I never would have discovered Lilly Scott otherwise.

For those who don’t remember (or never watched), Lilly Scott was was a semi-finalist on season 9 of American Idol back in 2010. She was eliminated the night they announced the Top 12. I still remember the look on her face when it came down to her and another girl. They both looked like they were waiting for Lilly’s name to be announced. But they read the other girl’s name instead. Everyone was shocked, including the other girl herself. (Sorry I can’t remember the name, but if I remember correctly, she didn’t even make it to the top five, so I don’t care too much.)

I remember Lilly saying something like her fans weren’t watching the show, which was more of a slight against American Idol than her fans. I think that was the moment where she must have realized that her destiny was for her, not a random TV audience, to decide.

That was the season I stopped watching American Idol. I was outraged for all the right reasons. That season was one of many that would make up the “white guys with guitars” streak. (No, seriously: Google it.) And I’ve never looked back.

I kept checking up to see what became of Lilly Scott though. It turned out she had a band called VARLET. I snatched up their EP (ironically titled) I Win! as soon as I found out about it. I think it may have come out around the same time as when she appeared on American Idol, but considering some of the lyrics, it feels like it could have been written about her American Idol experience.

Consider these lyrics from “Jello Plate”:

Watch out for me

That’s what they say

But do you know who I am?

…No I can’t take these fuckin’ people, yeah

What a goddamn joke

My heart is here wide open

But I don’t wanna get choked

Anymore

I thought for the longest time it WAS about her American Idol experience, but like I said, a little research shows it might not have been, unless she was singing about her audition/Hollywood week. Even then, that would still be pretty punk of her, giving a big (and, soon enough, well-deserved) middle finger to the mainstream music and television industry.

I Win! is very low key and, admittedly, a little indulgent in an almost hipstery kind of way. It sounds like something that would be performed at your local fair trade anti-Starbucks co-op coffee shop. But the minimal instrumentation really allows Lilly Scott’s vocals to shine. She’s the kind of musician who really knows how to use her voice as an instrument, and that’s my favorite kind of musician.

I still think back to her first Idol performance, when she sang one of my favorite Beatles songs, “Fixing A Hole.” It remains one of my favorite Beatles covers ever to this day. Just take a listen and you’ll understand why she was robbed (though she was not eliminated on this song):

You know, now that I think about it, maybe it was better that she didn’t make it into the competition with the other finalists. Onward and upwards, Lilly Scott.

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Event II

Few fans have suffered as long as the followers of Deltron 3030. Sure, Fiona Apple fans have been left waiting 6 or 7 years between albums. But it’s been 13 years since the original Deltron 3030 was released/unleashed upon the world. So was it worth the wait? Is the sequel as good as the original? Well…

I hate to start it like that, but the answer is just no, not quite. It’s still a good album, but I think the bar was set impossibly high by the original. And, considering all the rumors and tidbits from interviews over the years that promised the album was coming “soon,” I think the concept just kind of fell apart over those 13 years. It got put back together again, but the original vision was lost somewhere along the way.

Event II picks up 10 years (in story time) after its predecessor. Joseph Gordon Levitt narrates the intro, describing a world that has fallen into disarray and despair during our heroic duo’s absence. (The heroic duo being Deltron Zero and Dan the Automator, of course.) Then one day, they return. In the cinematic first track, Del describes the state of the planet, a strange new world to him now. Anarchy has overthrown the government, but not in the way he originally envisioned. Criminals rule the land, which has been utterly destroyed by nuclear war. Technology, which was once supposed to create a bright future, has now sent the people back to a more primitive and lawless era. Imagine the Wild West set in a post-nuclear fallout landscape. Music has now been banned completely, and nobody seems to care. Del steps forward now, no longer the rebel he once was but a messiah of sorts.

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It all paints a wonderful picture, and as the album progresses, the tracks get even better. But overall, the story just isn’t as strong. I haven’t been able to figure it out yet. I get that Del is dismayed by the audacity of the criminals he encounters and shocked by the complacency of the people who just accept the world the way it is. But it doesn’t have that same structure as the first album. There’s no final showdown/conflict and resolution that I can make out.

Still, the album is very ambitious, and littered with guest appearances by celebrities and fellow musicians. My favorite tracks have been “My Only Love” (featuring Emily Wells), “What Is This Loneliness” (with Damon Albarn), and “Do You Remember” (with Jamie Cullum).The spoken interludes featuring Amber Tamblyn and David Cross are delightfully hilarious. Chef David Chang’s bit may be my favorite though. He goes on and on about how great technology is and how it’s created the most amazing culinary concoctions…and yet his customers only want beet salads and pork buns. It really solidifies that picture of a future where people are satisfied with mediocrity. They’re comfortable with mediocrity, and who knows what will happen if they step out of that comfort zone? Maybe something good, but maybe something bad too. Better to stick with what they know.

All things considered, the thematic contrast between Deltron 3030 and Event II reminds me a bit of this infographic comparing the different futures predicted by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. To me, they match up respectively. For that reason, I think that Event II is worth a listen.

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Deltron 3030

Deltron 3030 (by the hip hop supergroup of the same name) is one of my favorite albums of all time. Easily in the top five. It changed everything I thought I knew about rap (and maybe even music itself). Yes, to me, it is that good, that influential.

After the spoken intro (“State of the Nation”), the first track (“3030”) had me immersed in a totally strange and new world within the first minute. Within the second minute, my mind was blown. Obliterated. And I still had five and a half minutes to go! I listen to it now and can’t even imagine how I handled it. I’m sorry for all the hyperbole, but I really can’t help it. This album had that much of an effect on me, and still does.

Deltron 3030 is a concept album set in the dystopian future of the year 3030, where the world is ruled by a corrupt government and music is controlled and mass-produced by corporations who care more about the money than the meaning. Enter our hero, Deltron Zero, a former mech soldier turned outlaw, who wants to bring the true meaning back to the music and thus, bring real freedom back to the people. In this world, music has power, if one knows how to wield it, and being a technological and psionic prodigy, Deltron is determined to do so. The opportunity presents itself in the form of the Intergalactic Rap Battle, and the stage for our story is set…

That’s about the best summary I can give for this album, because it’s so much more than just a story. It’s not just a concept album, you see. It’s kind of a meta-album. Though it was produced in the year 2000, the concepts of Delton 3030 still hold up pretty well overall. It’s very much a commentary on the music industry and how the captivity of creativity can lead to the captivity of freedom.

It’s even got a bit of anti-capitalist sentiment, which is not what you might expect, generally, when you think of mainstream rap. Think of the stereotypical music videos featuring rappers in fur coats with their diamond-studded necklaces, lounging in jacuzzis with gorgeous women, rolling down the street in expensive cars. That’s not Deltron 3030 at all, and it certainly isn’t Deltron Zero, who lives in a future where those people are fake, the enemies of freedom and creativity. Those are the people he wants to destroy, and so he does.

Aurally, the album is a real treat. Producer Dan the Automator paints a vivid world with sound (with some fun, well-timed scratches by DJ Kid Koala) in which the rhymes penned by Del the Funky Homosapien have room to thrive. It’s thanks to Del that all my preconceptions about rap were destroyed. Layers of wordplay, double meanings, and sci-fi references abound, rolling off his tongue effortlessly; it’s impossible to take them all in in just one listen.

If you’re the kind of person who grimaces at the suggestion of rap, I challenge you to listen to this album. And really listen to it. It’s not something that’s just meant to be played in the background–certainly not the first time you hear it.

If you’re the kind of person who says rap isn’t really music, I say that that’s like saying poetry isn’t really writing. Can you do it? And can you do it well? It takes skill. It’s an art form. And Deltron 3030 proves that it’s not something to be easily dismissed.

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