Zombie Politics

I drank your milkshake.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Leaky Cauldron: Three Cheers

So a lot of huge-ish albums have leaked unceremoniously (and way early) on the internet. I, being the scoundrel that I am, have grabbed said albums and listened to them. My insight (or lack thereof) follows.

Pharrell, “In My Mind” (July 25th)

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Whew. This was a long time coming, no? The first single was released in December of last year, the second one around Valentine’s Day (the album’s original release date) – this thing seems to be competing with OutKast’s “Idlewild” soundtrack for consecutive release dates (and subsequent pushed-back dates). Pharrell won. Or lost. Whichever. His is out first.

It’s pretty much what you would expect from the debut solo album from young production wizard/Neptune: tinny, off-kilter beats, outstandingly clever wordplay (on “How Does it Feel” he introspectively muses “Nigga you don’t know me/I’m part Howard Hughes, part horny part holy”) and all-star cameos (Pusha T from Clipse, Kanye West, Nelly, Snoop Dogg, Slim Thug). And there’s a certain amount of pleasure in getting just what you expected, because it’s so damn good. With slickness and wit to spare, Pharrell has made a dynamite solo debut – one in which he uses all of his patented tricks to pull off something that feels effortlessly enjoyable.

He’s stuck pretty close to the paradigm he set out with – 14 tracks, half slow-jam ballads, half jittery hip hop bangers. The album ended up being 15 tracks – with one track containing two songs – and it errs on the side of the bangers. The slow jams are just as good as the faster paced songs, as Pharrell establishes himself in the same soulful, sex-crazed realm of his (obvious) idol Prince. What’s odd is that one of the pre-release songs, the Latin-tinged duet with Daddy Yankee “Mamacita,” didn’t make the final cut. This is weird not only because of the quality of the song (it was damn good) but because of the seemingly limitless crossover marketing possibilities. Oh well.

The best collaboration here is “Young Girl” - a song that features a stellar rap interlude by retiree Jay-Z (“the scene that follows/screams of horror/classic Stephen King novel”) over a dirty, straight-out-of-the-80s beat. It’s pure magic and elevates the album to another level of ridiculous fun. You literally get lost in the beats and lyrics, your ass begins to shake uncontrollably… and that’s the first half of the two-song track!

It’s the perfect record for lazy, poolside summer listening – and he almost missed it!

Ratatat, “Classics” (August 22nd)

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I like Ratatat. Like, a lot. Their debut album was fun and strange – two guys with guitars, drums and seemingly low-tech keyboards creating dance music that was (in spite of itself) compulsively dance-able. The bootleg remix album that followed (which featured them Ratatat-ing up classic hip hop cuts) was even better – how they improved on Jay Z’s “Sunshine,” I’ll never fucking know. But the first album seemed to be something fragile, elliptical, and temporary – is there any way they could make another album out of rudimentary instrumentation and glitchy beeps?

The answer is yes. And no.

The new album (badass cover art above) is deeper, darker, and more complex than its predecessor – but not one bit less fun. When bloggers across the land are commenting that a song (“Tropicana”) bears resemblance to a Beatles song, then you know they’re upping the ante quite a bit. And they are. Songs like “Gettysburg” focus more on the glitchy techno aspects, while “Swisha” starts out with a genuine, folksy guitar lick, and (already) blogger-favorite “Wildcat” uses the sample of a screeching wildcat, with much more subtlety and grace than the Chemical Brothers did. And “Nostrand?” Well, that’s just fucking nuts.

Ratatat’s all about mixing up the genres, and they do so here with even more experimentalism and verve. It’s an outstanding album, one of the season’s best and cements their place as a wacky and entirely relevant factor in dance music. They truly have done so much with so little.

Basement Jaxx, “Crazy Itch Radio” (September 10th)

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It’s here. Waaaay early. So early, in fact, that I couldn’t find a decent sized picture of the hilarious album art. Ugh. Moving on…

The release of any and every new Basement Jaxx album is something of an event (at least for me). Since they made “Rooty” (one of the best ever avoidances of the ‘sophomore slump’), the release of a new album has heralded nothing but unchained excitement. Even their “Singles” collection, released last year in Britain, was a masterpiece – despite the lack of “Get Me Off,” it was an amazing experience from one end to the other, and the bonus disc was a goldmine of rare and forgotten treasures. So, yes, I was a little bit excited about the new album.

Especially when Pitchfork, those cynical bastards, leaked that one of the songs featured Swedish pop tart Robyn AND a children’s choir. Same song. Seriously.

Anyway… as with all Jaxx-related items, you have to expect the unexpected, and “Crazy Itch Radio” is just that. From the intro, which might be the weirdest, loudest, most huge-sounding thing they’ve ever done, “Crazy Itch Radio” is a twisty, curlicue road through the strangest, most danceable avenues of pop music. And what could have been an immense failure (one of titanic proportions – critically and commercially, especially given how well “Singles” sold) ends up being as satisfying and wonderful as anything they’ve produced.

Their reach is too broad, their sound too “full” (someone once complained to me that “too much is going on” in any given song), their influences and guests too varied – these could be criticisms of the band, but within the context of any given album, it works so well. From the twangy guitars on “Take Me Back to Your House” (goddamn it’s catchy), to the monstrous repetition in the chorus for “Hush Boy” (it literally sounds like they employed a Muppet), to the Favela and Diplo sounds on “Hey You”, to the grime/Bollywood fusion of “Everybody”… it’s a worldwide musical mishmash that works totally, completely, and without fail. You go on the musical journey with them because it’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard – and totally, balls-out fun.

I’m sure further listens will yield further insights (it wasn’t until the 50th or so time I played “Kish Kash” that I realized what an amazingly flawless song “Hot & Cold” was).

Between this and their contributions to Lady Sov’s debut album (out on October on Def Jam), they have had a really astounding year. It’s the Year of the Jaxx (the boombox-bodied dog?) Or rat. I can’t remember.

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