Justin Bieber – Under The Mistletoe

Well, the first 5 words that you read on today’s entry should indicate to you that today we are going to talk about the BAD of Christmas. Yesterday we talked about the good, so you should understand that, no matter how bad things get in THIS entry, there is always the good.

Today though, things are going to get really bad:

A look that screams 'Hello teenage girls, I AM HERE FOR YOUR SOUL *HISS*'

Justin Bieber (or Justice Beaver, a crime-fighting beaver, if you prefer) is very popularly, VERY understandably, both a target of lust for women of all ages (no matter how creepily young or old) and absolute, deserved ridicule from just about everyone else.

Still, this isn’t about hating Justin Bieber himself, because come on, everyone does that and they will continue to do that and it’s a lot better than any insults a mere blogger like myself can throw. This will be about hating his music, as soon as I actually listen to it.

The thing is, I have only heard maybe the one song that he did on his last album, which some wealthy rappers produced for him for his 13th birthday (all I got was a Ninja Turtles action figure and Mega Man 3 on the Nintendo… in many ways I still win). Basically, I am the world’s expert at avoiding music I know I’m not going to like,  but in this seedy world of practically anonymous journalism, sometimes one have to make sacrifices, and I am no exception.

So, in the spirit of something I did before that was fun, I am going to listen to Justin Bieber’s dubious holiday classic, Under The Mistletoe, for the very first time while blogging about the experience. I have never read a review on the album, and I have only Wikipedia’s dubiously factual page about it for fact-checking.

And away we go!

(Author’s Note: it should be noted that, the very second I picked up my mp3 player to press “play”, I suddenly started choking on my own spit and have just finished a monster coughing fit, so yeah, looks like we’re getting into something heavy here)

Track 1: “Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas”

Well, busting out of the gate is pretty much exactly what I was to expect from a modern teenage demographic pop song, it’s an auto-tuned disaster of this kid singing while simultaneously trying to sound “breathy”, complete with actual heavy breathing hiding in the percussion which is really creeping out this 29 year old blogger, let me assure you. I think about 5 choruses have passed by while I was busy writing that last sentence and attempting to extract that last bit of phlegm from my gullet, and now the song’s over! Praise the lord, at least that was short, only the rest of my short life to go!

Track 2: “Mistletoe”

The very instant that the acoustic guitar starts this plastic reggae piece of sterilized pop nonsense, I began vehemently cursing Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, and just about any other douchey college bro who figured out that upstrokes are the easiest thing to play on an acoustic guitar while you’re drunkenly trying to hit on women, and thus made it the standard for modern romantic music, probably until the day I die, which may be today if this chorus doesn’t go away soon. Seriously, is he saying “shawty with you”? Is he even legally allowed to use the word “Shawty?” where are his parents through all this?

Wow that was bad, I may have made a terrible mistake…

Track 3: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) feat. Usher”

Oh man, that sprinkly bell thing that all pop songs have had since the 90’s. I don’t even care that that last sentence is a fragment, it says more about this song than I needed to know. The only thing more predictable than this song appearing on this album, besides the almost obscene amount of singing “around” the notes, Mariah-Carey-style, is that it features Usher. Yeah, well, so do my nightmares, and you don’t seem me making millions off of them, just an ill-advised blog entry. Wow, Justin Bieber cranks out a pretty mean guitar solo half-way through this using his speak-and-spell, not too bad at all.

Track 4: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

JUST when I was about to remark on how this track appears to be spitting on the grave of the Jackson 5 (if all 5 Jacksons were replaced with robots), Bieber comes in with this “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING GURL, WOO” and I had to stop the recording to sit here and HATE THAT with all my concentration. Otherwise, yeah this song is pretty much spitting on SOMEONE’S grave, because I can’t imagine who would do this to anyone in the name of love, though I guess that guy that shot John Lennon thinks he was doing a good thing? Anyway, this song also features one of those horrible R&B talk-downs half-way through, and I am pretty sure I’m losing the vision in my left eye.

My fingers are now poised over the phone, having dialed 9 and 1, and if this next track doesn’t pick things up I am going to have to put this review on hold and hit that other 1.

Track 5: “Fa La La feat. Boyz 2 Men”

Speaking of things that killed Motown, Boyz 2 Men make an appearance on this complete mess of random syllables (which makes sense since “Fa La La” aren’t technically words) making Bieber sound like a eunuch version of the Decepticon Soundwave. Understand, however, as someone who was watching Transformers at the age in which Bieber made his first billion dollars, that the actual Soundwave is all man.

Track 6: “All I Want For Christmas Is You (SuperFestive!)” feat. Mariah Carey

Well! Speak of the devil and the washed up singer he stole his vocal vamping and upper octave range from, Bieber does a duet with Mariah Carey here about how much they want to bone each other (no surprise there, that’s what every single other song in this album has been so far), and I shouldn’t have to point out that he is 17 and she’s 41 and that’s really creepy, so instead I will point out something even better: Mariah Carey’s own best-selling Christmas album called Merry Christmas was released November 1st, 1994, the year Justin Bieber was born. In fact, THIS VERY ALBUM was released on 11/1, the 17th year anniversary of her album, which might be considered creepy and sinister, but in fact most Christmas albums come out around that time so yeah. I just really needed something to distract me from the rest of this song because this is truly awful.

Track 7: “Drummer Boy feat. Busta Rhymes”

Now, being a bit of a Christmas music hater, so I don’t have any special attachment to “The Little Drummer Boy”, especially since it’s not really a hymn, despite what people may think. Thus, I am not mad that Bieber does his stupid auto-tune vocal scale warmup on the traditionally staccato “Parumpa pum pum” (which is supposed to emulate a drum, you idiot, drums don’t do scales!), nor am I even upset at the inclusion of a rapper doing some truly awful things to the institution of rhyming and shouting in between lines pretending the other vocal track can hear him, as I have always theorized that Justin Bieber is a tool that the R&B/Rap community are using in order to get revenge on white people. No, what upsets me about this song is that it’s supposed to be about a kid who drums because he’s too poor to do anything else for Jesus, and so Bieber doing this song implies that, having a similar background, the original drummer boy must have struck it big on Youtube and become an evil prepubescent millionaire for the his act of percussive generosity, when really he probably just remained poor for the rest of his life and had to tell that Jesus-smiling-at-him story to his disinterested grandchildren as the only thing interesting that ever happened to him. It just makes me mad that it couldn’t have been the reverse, is all.

Track 7: “Christmas Eve”

Now that we’re done hearing Bieber rap about how great he is at the drums and how he should be canonized into the damn Bible, we’re back to a confusing mess of notes about how much he wants to get laid on Christmas. I’m sure you can work that into your schedule of featuring formerly popular musicians and appearing in court for Paternity suits, kid, so buck up! I love the line “I don’t need no presents, gurl, you’re everything I need”, as if Justin Bieber would otherwise require presents. What would you even get a 17 year old kid who’s been given a free ride to the top? An abortion of the illegitimate fetus of his choice?

Wow I’m getting mean; that means the album must almost be over!

Track 8: “All I Want Is You”

We’re now at the 3rd song (or is it 4th? or All Of The Above?) about how all Bieber wants for Christmas is YOU, person who purchased his album. Seriously, remember that line I quoted above? Here’s the first line from this chorus: “Any I don’t care if I don’t get anything; all I need is you here right now”, exactly how much do you need to pound that point in Bieber? I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that this album wasn’t written by Rick Derringer and they just replaced all the references to America with Christmas and Gurl.

Track 9: “Home This Christmas feat. The Band Perry”

I don’t know who The Band Perry is, but they really should win a Grammy for “band that somehow managed to completely un-change a Bieber song”. About the only thing I can tell that separates this song from the previous 8 is that there’s a live drum set being played flaccidly by a drummer who will probably do nothing else in life except tell his disinterested grandchildren about how he drummed once for Justin Bieber… for a smile.

Track 10: “Silent Night”

I am starting this track up and hearing a sedated Bieber singing what seems like a straight version of this song (except he does an intentional pause after the word “virgin” and I don’t know what to make of that). I am expecting there to be some kind of rap segment or auto-tuned background singers singing about how he’s totally going to get some on this silent night yo gurl.

COME ON SONG, how could you fail in your task this fantastically? Well, at least each line ends abruptly so Bieber can try and pronounce the next word on the page and let the echoey bits trail off and remind all of us that this is still part of a terrible pop album and not some random, displaced bit of sincerity in this monster of an album.

AND IT’S FINISHED! PRAISE THE LORD (no I didn’t get the special edition, I’m no fool!)

Now that I’ve made it through to the other side of that train-wreck, I am now able to confirm a suspicion I’ve had ever since this Bieber kid and Lady Gaga and all them became the biggest economic forces in music:

Basically, the world as we know it is ending.

Oh, we’ve heard about it for a while, but with the world economy treading thin ice, the music industry collapsing, the world of retail cannibalizing its own limbs in an effort to stay alive for just one more holiday season, we’re staring straight into the face of an entire world of entertainment that was meant to  provide us with a good, general distraction from our daily lives, panicking and flailing under the pressure of today’s internet-based culture, where we can be entertained by anything we want, whether it was recorded in the past or in the present at the great expense of some rappers who are on their way out anyway.

In the face of that, the entertainment industry is trying its hardest to manufacture anything that will sell, and can no longer take any risks or do anything interesting that might be less popular than the last thing. Thus, we have “safe” Justin Bieber crooning his thinly veiled songs about getting laid, we have “safe” Lady Gaga who rakes in millions by cultivating a shock image without actually doing anything shocking, we’ve got retail stores and Starbucks hanging up their Christmas decorations/shopping reminders on Oct. 1st, and we’ve got all the soul and sincerity and warmth of what’s supposed to be a single day of loving your family, thinking of Jesus (if that’s what you do), and eating a lot of food and giving/getting gifts, completely stripped away and set aside until the world feels comfortable with celebrating love instead of money. When that day comes, maybe someone who sings about Christmas and really means it will go to the top, but until then, we get to either laugh, cry, or hate on artists like Bieber until they too get swept under the rug.

Or alternatively, we can just forget about all that and have a kickass party, so stay tuned for TOMORROW’s entry when we leave this depressing ghost of Christmas Presents and bring the hope back to Christmas. Stay tuned, and happy holidays!

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They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

I feel somewhat unqualified to talk about They Might Be Giants on this site sometimes. Sure I’ve listened to all their albums, most of their non-album stuff, and have been obsessed with them more than a few times (typically whenever they come out with an album), but to this great sea of anger and frustration we call the internet, that’s simply not enough. There have been and always will be people more concerned with every little thing this band does than I will ever have the energy for.

Still, that doesn’t discourage me from plowing forward. Today we’re talking about Lincoln:

Granddad building prepares to make a speech for nobody

Any time I think of this album, I don’t really think of the colorful variety of sounds and styles present, not the mind-breaking bizarre lyrics, not even the abstract political and religious themes involved. Nope, when I think of Lincoln I think of basslines. Specifically, this strange synthesized slap-bass that is present on pretty much every track. It boggles the mind, I have never heard a synthesizer make a bass sound like that, and I’m not sure whether I like it or not, just that it’s there.  From the opening of the first track, “Ana Ng”, it’s there in the mix, distracting me from almost anything else that’s going on. It was used a few times on the previous album, and it would be used a few times later, even with real basses on the John Henry album, but for some reason I only notice it on Lincoln.

Speaking of “Ana Ng“, it’s the first song and, in TMBG tradition, is sung by John Linnell. It features the most staccato (that means sticky) distorted guitar I’ve ever heard, in fact, if you listen to the song too loudly, it might become physically painful to hear, but fortunately the fake bass will help distract you from it. The lyrics denote a long-distance friendship or maybe relationship, and how the two people in the song live on opposite sides of the globe. It also makes some reference to the 1964 World’s Fair, and uhhh who knows. The video is particularly entertaining, as it introduces a dance craze that would hold the world captive until the song ended.

We then move on to “Cowtown” which is apparently the first song the duo ever learned how to play (Linnell had written it years previous). It’s said that the title and subject of the song is based on Ft. Worth, Tx., which is the “big city” near where I grew up, and if so, that’s lovely. It still doesn’t explain what the song is actually about, though it uses the word “Arboreality” and I can’t fault it for that.

We then move on to a song about drugs. It’s “Lie Still, Little Bottle“, and the best part of it is that the band performs it live by banging a stick against a woodblock for percussion. Yep, THAT’S the best part of the song. On the actual album, however, no stick is present, so buyer beware.

The next song is “Purple Toupee“, which is the most confused politically-charged song I’ve ever heard. It, along with the next track, “Cage & Aquarium”, are plays on the lyrics of other songs: “Purple Rain” by Prince and “The Dawning Of The Age Of Aquarius” (traditional), respectively.

We then move on to “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go”, which is one of my favorites songs on the album. The lyrics are mostly word-play, creepy imagery, and an obscure reference to pioneer rapper Kurtis Blow. None of that matters, what matters is this line:

Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part
That wonder what the part that isn’t thinking
Isn’t thinking of

I would be lying if I said phrases like that didn’t influence me early on in my own songwriting/breakfast food selection.

The next song is a strangely straightforward depression song called “Piece Of Dirt”, which is a bit of a young disappointment, lyrically. Don’t get me wrong, the melody and instrumentation are great (and the synth bass is buried in there somewhere just inside the mix, unless that’s a saxophone), but according to legend, the “good” lyrics to this song were lost until after the song was recorded and released, so the replacement lyrics are what we have to live with. It’s really too bad, but that’s the way music goes.

Another song that makes use of wordplay is “Mr. Me”, which seems like a lame attempt to displace problems from the 1st person to an invisible 3rd person. I think we can all relate to that. It also has some incredibly low vocals, which is respectful in and of itself.

We then move on to another song called… wait a minute… “Pencil Rain”? ANOTHER ripoff of “Purple Rain”, incredible. I wonder if there’s a song called “Pencil Toupee” out there? Either way, this song is really excellent both for its arrangement (a motivational march song played in slow motion), and the use of Morse code in the bridge. How many bands do YOU know can toss out a Morse code solo?

In order to have as much variety wrapped around ugly synthesized bass as possible, the guys throw out a rarely-played-live number called “The World’s Address”, which can be better understood lyrically if you pay attention to the line “A sad pun that reflects a sadder mess”, meaning you should listen again while thinking about it like “The World’s A Dress”, then lines like “A place that’s worn” make a lot more sense. Well not a lot more, but more.

Another depressing love-lost song is “I’ve Got A Match”, and they change up the bass synth a little for this song, other than that, I have nothing to say about it.

Speaking bass synth, it’s at its most oppressive in the track “Santa’s Beard”, which is a bizarre song about a Yuletide love triangle. I think the author of this song shouldn’t worry so much about his wife cheating on Santa, his wife doesn’t even exist.

If you are particularly interested in atonal dissonance, you’d appreciate the crazed swing classic “You’ll Miss Me”, which features some great shouting by John Flansburgh. It seems to be an exercise in hitting random notes at planned intervals, but the whole thing works in a really disjointed way.

After those 3 songs, it’s probably time for a smash hit single, yes? Luckily “They’ll Need A Crane” is waiting right around the corner. This song, despite the synth bass, is really cleanly arranged and has some amazing heartbroken lyrics, particularly in the bridge:

Don’t call me at work again oh no
The boss still hates me
I’m just tired, and I don’t love you anymore
And there’s a restaurant we should check out
Where the other nightmare people like to go
I mean nice people, baby wait
I didn’t mean to say “nightmare”

It has a great video that features Linnell bouncing around like who knows, and they have a band of really old guys. Awesome!

I hesitate to use the term “dadaist” in reference to TMBG, because I fear dependence on it. However, it’s hard to call a song called “Shoehorn With Teeth” anything but. It’s a great tune though, and the band still whips it out every now and then, even if they no longer have the famous glockenspiel they used to unveil for the song’s signature 3 glockenspiel notes.

I think a song that tends to get left behind in a lot of people’s descriptions of Lincoln is the song “Stand On Your Own Head”.

The next song is possibly the first in a long line of songs that have to do with workplace despair, “Snowball In Hell”. It’s a good song, though the melody kind of makes me sad, and the synth bass isn’t even that bad in it. All is well, however, especially given that it has an excerpt from an interesting motivational tape in the bridge.

And finally, we have the religiously controversial ending, the beautiful sounding “Kiss Me, Son Of God”. The song is really just about a really bad guy with a Christ complex, and is nothing to throw a holy fit about. The band would later write a few other songs about bad guys, most notably “Reprehensible”, which would also feature old-fashioned instrumentation.

So that’s it for Lincoln. Though this album is excellent, I still feel like it’s a collection of songs designed to accommodate their stage show, but never fear! The band’s best work is yet to come…

 

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Coldplay – Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends

I was discussing something with a friend the other day, and I wish I could remember what the topic was (probably music), but the idea came up that the mark of a good artist is not necessarily what they can do, but what they do, whether they can or can’t. Success within one’s own limitations, that’s what it’s all about, and that made me think of Coldplay’s new album, which I had recently purchased in the Prospekt’s March edition on the week it came out a while ago. Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends is definitely a success story by possibly one of the most limited bands in popular music, and I say that in a caring way.

Putting a Spanish title about life over a French painting containing dead bodies for your enjoyment.

Now, when I first heard this album, I didn’t want to like it, or Coldplay for that matter. Call it whatever the musician’s version of feminine intuition is, but I can see through Coldplay’s tricks. There’s no reason at all that they should be as big as they are. Chris Martin is the most egomaniacal singer I’ve ever known who can’t actually sing, the guitarist is just fine with using a maximum of 2 notes per song (often the same ones), and the previous 3 albums the quartet have put out over the years are the laziest, most effortless recordings I’ve heard in their genre, in terms of arrangement and lyrics.

Don’t get me wrong, I am quite fond of at least 2 of those albums, for about half the albums anyway (seriously worst cases of late-album slowdown ever, which is a shame because the final track Amsterdam is the best track on A Rush Of Blood To The Head, but that’s another album for another day). Again, I see through the tricks, I’ve always seen Coldplay as trying to be the next U2 without the effort, riding in the coattails of bands who sound similar but are much better (particularly Travis, who have been caught speaking fairly enviously of Coldplay’s success in America). Their ex-sister band Travis makes a good point, however, that Colplay worked hard to promote and market themselves, and that’s pretty much all that is needed.

So what is different about their new album that I would not only purchase it and listen to it (I never gave the previous album, X&Y, such a chance), but actually really dig it? Well, the answer is that Coldplay seem to have learned, more than ever, how to work within their limitations, and how to apply the same energy they used whoring themselves around to market their product into actually improving the product itself. The result is an album that I can say, from atop my tiny box of judgment about the band, is really pretty damn good.

Is Chris Martin any better of a singer? Of course not, but I understand he was actually discouraged from singing in falsetto for this album. This makes his singing about 100% better, the fact that it doesn’t sound like he’s struggling with high notes that are meant for better singers. Is the guitarist still a 2-note wonder? Absolutely, but he makes up for it on many of the tracks by at least mixing up those notes or, in the case of “Strawberry Swing”, uses some interesting effect to make it sound like it’s looping backwards (if I were still current on guitar technology I’d reveal the secret behind this effect, but I’ve forgotten).

As far as arrangements go, I have to say that my first thought, upon hearing the opening tracks, “Life In Technicolor” and “Cemeteries Of London”, was “that’s more like it!” It could be producer Brian Eno’s hand in all of this, but honestly if you require Brian Eno to make your work more exciting, you’ve got some problems dude. Nah, I think it’s just a real effort on the part of everyone involved that made this album sound the way it does.

Of course, once the introductory tracks are out of the way (which, by the way, are linked with a musical segue that I highly approve of), the real meat of the album is presented in an organ-grinding song called “Lost!”, which contains fairly clever lyrics and a wonderful chorus. It’s a good song, and worthy of its “hit single” status, but really the song that impressed me the most is “42” (ironically, I’d call this an “old-style” Coldplay song, but to do so outside of these parentheses would mean deflating almost the entirety of this writeup so far). What I love about “42”, besides the obvious allusion to Douglas Adams, is that it’s a song about ghosts and death, and there’s something about the way English people sing about such dreary things that meets with my approval almost every time. I think it’s in the English blood, growing up around so much bad weather.

“Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love” isn’t a favorite of mine for the “Lovers” part, but after 4 minutes, when (presumably) the “Reign Of Love” part starts up, it’s well worth the piano-pounding pop magic of the earlier part of the track. If they would have seperated these tracks, that would have maybe been nicer, but hey you can’t have everything.

The next song, a 7 minute 2-part epic called “Yes” is a much grander example of combining 2 songs into one track. Why did the band do this to us twice? You’ll have to climb to the highest mountain and ask their egos that, I’m afraid. This track is bumpin’ in both parts, though, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

“Yes” introduces an element that the next song, “Viva La Vida”, hits out of the park. What’s the best way to hide the limitations of a pop band? Hide behind an orchestra! Not only is a quite-well-arranged orchestra (which includes timpani, I LOVE those) the leader of most of the song, but the lyrics are actually really inspiring. I… don’t really know how to take that, even now with all my backhanded praise to this album, I am actually gol’dern impressed by how cool this song is. The only thing I’d take away from it is the less-than-stellar acappella ending. Still, that’s only 15 seconds of fade-out, so hey.

The next song, “Violet Hill”, marks the point that I never get past in other Coldplay albums… that’s right, the Late Album Slowdown. I have to say, despite a bit of plodding with the beat, this song accomplishes a first for the band: it doesn’t slow the album all the way down! So surely “Strawberry Swing” is going to do the job, right? Nope, thanks to that backwards-looping thing I mentioned earlier, the song starts interesting and stays that way.

So we’ve made it all the way to the end, where “Death And All His Friends” awaits. By this time, I don’t mind saying that the song is a bit boring and has a dull, meandering melody/instrumental hook, because by this time I am so happy with the rest of the album, it just fits along with everything and makes for a pretty good ending. Well, actually, the REAL ending is a reprise of “Life In Technicolor”, which is a slightly pretentious but all-around acceptable way to end an album.

I do feel kind of bad being such a fan of this album, as that just means I’m one of the millions of Coldplay detractors who have turned around after listening to this album. It’s really a matter of course, however, as the album reeks of effort on everyone’s part and I’m just fine with it being a success, even if Coldplay’s attitude about it is much loftier than I would like. Still, just in case you think they were done being marketing whores, listen to the companion EP, Prospekt’s March. Amidst some songs that are pretty good, one of the features is “Lost+”, which is the same as “Lost!” only features a retarded rap segment from Jay-Z. Coldplay, you’ve got a foot on the hill but you’ve still a ways to climb.

Or, I guess as the band themselves say in “42”:
You didn’t get to Heaven but you made it close

 

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The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing

One thing about my job that I can not stand is the radio. It plays every day and the songs are always the same. Austin’s own “alternative” rock station declares itself “Local, Independent, Alternative“, I just like to imagine those three adjectives are separated by “or”s, as if you can only choose one adjective to describe that station. Since they can’t possibly NOT be local, that is the correct answer. They broadcast the same rock staples that I have been unwillingly hearing on the radio since I was like 12 years old. The pop station is no better, every single Sunday, when I work in the morning, the morning mix will always contain Vanilla Ice and “I’ve Got The Power”, and that will never change. The radio is like a massive, rotting carcass of an elephant or whale or something that’s been dropped right in your front yard. Every day you can’t avoid the stench, and who exactly do you call to get rid of it? The only thing you can do is go to a place with no carcass, which means relocating, or try your best to block off your olfactory senses.

Well I took the latter solution of that analogy and ran with it for 3 blissful years at work, blocking off the horrible sounds of the radio with my trusty Shure headphones. I was eventually cut off from my solution by a manager who peskily thought that blasting the radio before opening hours was perfectly suitable, but listening to one’s own music on headphones while working contentedly was right out.

My mornings became Hell after that. Listening to the same horrible music and the same terrible DJ’s every workday took its toll on my actual health, and I even suffered a slight panic attack at the inescapable horror of “the NEW rock alternative” (“Self Esteem” by The Offspring sure is new there, fellas.) All hope seemed lost, but then something weird happened… I got used to it. I just got to where I could try and predict which of the same 10 songs they were going to play next, and then see if they could get past 2 songs without going to commercial (they haven’t yet) and the whole thing is terrible, but not panic-inducing.

I am telling this story because there is a song right now on the radio called “That’s Not My Name”, and it’s by these guys:

Chad McTrendyman and the Cyclops welcome you to The Ting Tings' We Started Nothing

Here’s the thing, it might be some kind of strange Stockholm Syndrome to the radio that I’ve developed, but I actually found the song to be kind of *catchy*. It features a simple 3 chord arrangement, a very simple rhythm accompanied by the usual finger-snaps, hand-claps and jangling car key noises that you would expect from a pop song, and the cycloptic lead-singer lady’s cutesy British singing that can be best described as “not really singing”. The real “song” part of the song comes in after the second chorus around the 2 minute mark, where real vocals are layered on top of the “command” vocals, which makes for quite a hook, to be honest with you.

As for the rest of the album, well…

There’s a little kid inside of me that likes to move around to pop and rock fluff, but in order to do things like purchase or download albums like We Started Nothing, he has to get permission from the large, imposing grandpa inside of me who only gets excited over things like Billy Joe Shaver and the old “good” rock and just about any blues music. The little kid makes the case that the song is pretty catchy and the album is really cheap, in fact my newly acquired Zune Pass makes it pretty much free. Grandpa says “Ok but there better be SOMETHING in this for me, otherwise you are grounded.”

The next song on the album, “Fruit Machine” isn’t so bad either, especially since it reminds me of a hook-less, mindless version of Nancy Sinatra’s masterpiece “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”, and that’s just the thing, why don’t I just listen to that? By the time we get to “Traffic Light”, which is charming in its own way, Grandpa made me realize that this really isn’t an album that was recorded for me. This is a juvenile album for a juvenile crowd.

Why is it, then, that it became a number 1 hit in the UK and hipsters twice as old as me are purchasing it from the place I work? I kind of can’t figure it out, the album doesn’t even seem like it’s even finished, and it starts off with some catchy songs, but later on, provided you haven’t skipped the rest due to late-album fatigue (a subject I touch on and should really embellish on sometimes), it just gets boring and with songs like “Be The One” (which repeats the hook from “That’s Not My Name”) it gets downright cannibalistic.

I think the answer is that it’s “indie”. It’s not particularly good, but it’s hip. If, like me, you don’t know what “hip” and “indie” entails, just picture a large group of kids that look exactly like the two people on the cover of that album. That is the template for “indie”, and the kids love it! The highschool girls and the 30 year old guys with tight pants that are trying to date the highschool girls have something cool and new to download into their iPods and listen to through their weedy, uncomfortable headphones while looking for something else to download. The two members of the band dress up exactly like the hip “indie” crowd, so they have the style, and putting less music in the mix means it’s easier to remember and there’s nothing to think about! Honestly this album should sail right up to the top, it’s a poster for conformity to the most ridiculous fashion in music and appearance since the Aquanet era and the rock it inspired.

We have now established that the album is not good. So why do I like it? Well, it’s kind of hard not to. Despite the flaccid, vacuous nature of the thing, and the dreadful trendy attitude it was borne out of, it is still the product of a factory that creates music scientifically engineered to suck in a way that keeps you just barely interested in listening to it. It’s like Kraft Cheese Food Products, sure you can call yourself a “gourmet” who would only be seen in public with the finest Roquefort, but most people are just fine putting a slice of Kraft Singles on their cracker for a lonely Saturday afternoon snack.

At least, that’s the case the little kid inside me makes to Grandpa whilst dancing a jig to “Shut Up and Let Me Go”.

“So this is what you damn kids are listening to nowadays, eh?” Grandpa says, holding his ear trumpet a little closer to hear the synthesizers, “Well I hate it! Now get out of here and come back with that new remastered CD of Roy Orbison Sings Lonely And Blue! Actually, get the other two while you’re at it, you are grounded!”

“Yes Grandpa…”

“THAT’LL teach you to listen to the radio. Gol’dern it, I didn’t raise no psuedo-disco lovin’ brat…. don’t even know what the Blues are all about… gonna listen to some….. more Beatles…. hasn’t even…. written about Warren Zevon yet…. zzzzzzzZZZzzz….”

 

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Sia – Some People Have Real Problems

It’s unlike me to read music reviews. I know that might seem a little ironic, but it’s the truth. I deliberately avoid calling what I’m doing here “reviews” because reviews are critical and objective. I’m totally fine with reviews and criticism and objectivity, but not with music. A good example of why that is would be the reviews for Sia’s third solo album, “Some People Have Real Problems”. First though, I’ll tell you what I think about it, as that is the point of this blog, and then we’ll talk about criticism.

In a move that is rare but not unheard of, I bought this album without any prior knowledge of the artist and without hearing any of the music. What drew me to this album (I’m almost ashamed to say) was pure marketing. For one, the album was released through a Starbucks-affiliated label, and thus was thrust into the center of my favorite corporate coffee-shop, with a host of little blurbs describing how good the thing is. That did not really draw me to it, as just about any album can be described as “breathtaking” and “beautiful”, but the cover is what sold me:

I want to marry this woman

That, my friends, was all I needed to know.

It’s quite fortunate, then, that the album turned out to be brilliant. The first track, “Little Black Sandals”, I had initially not felt so hot about and thus erroneously figured that it would be the album’s first single or something and thus could be ignored. I’ve since grown to enjoy the track, chorus of children singing and all, and found that it’s a really good start to what the rest of the album has to offer.

The overall mood of the album is melancholy but optimistic, in fact, I have often said that Sia achieves exactly what I wish I could with songwriting. Soulful, emotional, but at the same time eccentric and fun. Her singing  is full of character, and she even pulls off the most difficult move in all of female vocaldom: She can pull off diva-singing without being irritating!

“Diva-singing” is what I call something that we should all be familiar with by now, and it’s one of the reasons I dislike most female vocalists. It’s characterized by what can best be described as trying to hit 12 notes all at once when just one note would do just fine. The greatest offender in this regard is Mariah Carey, but she is one of hundreds.

Sia is not, however, she is in a class by herself. In fact, it’s like Sia graduated from the same school of singing as all of these tarts but played hooky all the time to sneak off to Radiohead University to play with the boys there. Whilst there, she apparently made friends with the indie-kid idol Beck and even had him sing on her album on “Academia” (a fitting title for my overly elaborate analogy here).

Despite being a melancholy album, the theme to Sia’s lyrics, it seems, is of someone who is both bright-eyed and a kid at heart (the song “Playground” is a wonderful track about never growing up), and someone who is mature and wise to the world (“Day Too Soon”, “Soon We’ll Be Found”, and “Death By Chocolate” are all written from the viewpoint of a woman who is no stranger to heartbreak). The link between both of these viewpoints is that she presents an optimism too often lacking in “moody” albums. For this reason, the album is a joy to listen to no matter what time of day.

It would really be enough for me for this album to stand alone as a collection of really good songs (and a lot of them too, you get 14 full-length songs if you count the secret track), but the icing on the cake, and the reason that I bought the album, is the fact that Sia is a very strange woman, and doesn’t mind having a lot of fun with film, as evidenced by her TV show appearances and her wonderful music videos. Here’s a list of my favorites, courtesy of Youtube:

“Soon We’ll Be Found” – the music video. Shadow puppets!

“Buttons” (live on Jimmy Kimmel) – a song so upbeat it had to be put in as a secret track to keep it from derailing the rest of the album. True story!

“Day Too Soon” (live acoustic version) – I decided I like this one better than the official version because she sings it dressed like a bird, and it’s a lovely version of the song anyway.

Upon becoming enamored with this album and the lovely Australian lady who made it, I decided maybe I should read about what actual “journalists” think of the album, and I was quite surprised to find out that, critically, people don’t seem to really know how to take it. Rolling Stone gave it 2 out of 5 stars and wrote:

This Australian-born folkie sad sack may still be best known for her Six Feet Under highlight, “Breathe Me.” But her third album (and first Starbucks command performance) tries to establish her as a major Feist-style presence.

I know Rolling Stones is not a very good publication, but even I know better than to summarize an artist by comparing them to another artist people may not have heard of in order to make myself look hip. I have never heard Feist before, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know for sure what Sia is “trying to establish” in relation to Feist no matter how thick the rims of my glasses are.

The comparisons abound. The Allmusic review (which gave Sia a very favorable score) says the following:

Sia is exactly the sort of artist a middle-aged Starbucks devotee who wants to remain at least tangentially hip would flock to: if Amy Winehouse did yoga instead of Jack Daniels, she’d sound a lot like Sia.

Also if Amy Winehouse sounded completely different and did different songs, you mean?

Some People Have Real Problems sounds like a concerted grab for the Mum Rock demographic, those looking for something to listen to while they’re waiting for Corrine Bailey Rae and Regina Spektor to release new albums.

Who and who? Also what is Mum Rock? Could it be possible that I am not as tangentially hip as this author?

…”Death by Chocolate,” (which) also features fellow Scientologists Jason Lee and Giovanni Ribisi, also seem(s) designed to attract the audience that fell for Feist’s “1234.”

Again, no idea. Do they mean the Jason Lee from Alvin & The Chipmunks?

Either way, music critics can’t be trusted, because even when they think they have a point, it’s by naming other artists they’ve heard of and saying “this is TRYING to be like this”. I refuse to believe it, I’ve been writing songs for years and never did I think to myself “I’m going to establish myself as a major Feist-style presence!” These are the same people that say things like “Muse is trying to sound like Radiohead”, and they make me very sad.

You know what would make me happy, though? Listening to the album I have been talking about and remembering that, indeed, Some People Have Real Problems. I think I’ll do that. Good day!

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