I have violently conflicting feelings about Lorde’s 2013 super-ultra-hyper-mega smash “Royals.” On one hand, I always find it reassuring when a weird song by an unknown artist somehow finds its way onto mainstream pop radio. But, on the other, I don’t really love “Royals” as a song, or any of her other work for that matter. It’s not that I’m trying to resist my enjoyment of something massively popular to help reinforce my indie cred. I just don’t find her work all that interesting or catchy. I mean, we already had a perfectly good Imogen Heap, didn’t we?
Now, if you’ve ever looked at this blog before,1 you might think that I don’t like “Royals” because it’s anti-rap, but you’d be wrong. Hell, “Royals” is practically a Drake song. It does, however, espouse a eye-roll-inducing and trite viewpoint, but what do you expect from a seventeen-year-old. Every teen ever has declared at one point or another that they’re not all materialistic like everyone else, her declaration just happened to become a hit single. I’m surprised it doesn’t include a few lines about how the colors that one person sees might not be the colors that someone else sees, and also have you read Fight Club?
But, of course, all of the worst kinds of moralizers have taken up “Royals” as a rallying point to fight against all that bling-bling stuff. They’re the kind of absurdly self-serious kids that favorite Karmin covers of rap songs and love to lament being born in the wrong generation. They think that they’re being groundbreaking and edgy, when they’re doing exactly what every new generation has done throughout all of human history.
That’s why I love T-Pain’s rework of the song. It totally exposes how little distance there actually is between “Royals” and “I’m ‘N Luv (Wit A Stripper).” And, even if they won’t admit that that’s true, it’ll still piss off the smug little fuckers who think that they’re the first people in the history of man to decide that money can’t buy happiness. After all (if you haven’t guessed this already) I’m a grumpy old man and these kids need to get off my lawn. I just put down grass seed and they’re gonna trample it all up. Don’t you kids have some Kerouac to go fawn over? As for old man TWG, I’m gonna be here, sitting on my porch swing, whittling, and listening to Flockaveli.
Pete Seeger - “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep (Live At 1964 Newport Folk Festival)”
Mentioning the late, great Pete Seeger in a post from last week inspired me to revisit some of my favorite tracks of his. So, I thought I’d share with you my all-time, #1, absolute, total, supreme, A-1, premier, top, super-duper, mega, ∞ favorite recording of his. It’s a live recording of him playing a gospel song called “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep" at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.1
On one hand, I love it as a document of Seeger as a live performer. He has such an effortless ease and earnest charisma on stage. You don’t even have to have been there (or at any concert of his): you can hear it right on the record. He uses gentle prodding and a gentle kind of kidding to draw in the audience and put them at ease about joining in the singing. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a crowd so enthusiastic and committed to singing along at any show I’ve ever attended.2 And, wow, that high note he sings over the crowd singing the chorus on their own. Goodness. That’s just fantastic.
I also love this recording because it perfectly captures how transcendent simple, direct music can be. Though we music fans often tend to celebrate experimental abnormality, or dazzlingly intricate technical proficiency, there’s an undeniable power in simplicity. No matter if it’s a huge four-to-the-floor drop at a disco, or a clap-a-long church hymn, or Marcus Mumford’s unyielding kickdrum, stark, straightforward rhythms and choruses can be utterly entrancing. Just listen to people clapping and singing along with Pete on this track. Is there any question that they’re having a transcendent musical experience?
I suppose what I’m saying is that we should all remember to enjoy the simple pleasures of life now and again. And that we should all remember to enjoy Pete Seeger now and again, too.
2. The closest moments of audience participation I’ve personally witnessed were Jeff Mangum playing “Holland, 1945”, Blitzen Trapper playing “Furr”, and the Pride of the Southland Marching Band playing “Rocky Top” after the Vols scored a touchdown.
Trillville - “Weakest Link” vs. Drake - “Draft Day”
"Draft day, Johnny Manziel / Five years later how am I the man still? / Draft day, A. Wiggins / Fuck that other side, bitch, we stay winnin’"
That’s the chorus of the recent Drake loosie “Draft Day" in which Drizzy compares himself to two athletes who are expected to be picked early in their respective drafts.1 Listen to it got me thinking about how pop culture references can be a double-edged sword for an artist. On one hand, they allow the artist to capture and engage with the zeitgeist, getting an easy boost at the same time. Also, it allows the artist to invoke very specific images and emotions in the audience by invoking something with which they’re already familiar.
But, hyper-specific references are always a dicey proposition. The reason for this is that it’s tough to predict which parts of popular culture will endure, which will be forgotten, and which will become kitsch.
That brings us to the track at the top of this post, a deep cut off Trillville’s split LP with Lil Scrappy, the exceedingly appropriately named The King of Crunk & BME Recordings Present: Trillville & Lil Scrappy. While I’ve often mentioned on this blog that Scrappy’s half is severely underrated, Trillville’s is also a solid collection of tracks. “Neva Eva" and "Some Cut" are mid-00s crunk classics, and "Get Some Crunk In Ya System" finds Lil Jon inject a sense of creeping dread to his production with surprisingly successful results. The sore thumb of the album, though, is undoubted the track above, "Weakest Link."
Yup, it’s rap song based around the catchphrase from the short-lived (in America) game show Weakest Link.2 They must have recorded this during the first week the show aired, when the funny guy at work couldn’t stop saying “You are the weakest link. Goodbye." in a stern British accent, and everyone found it irrepressibly hilarious. The phrase, however, proved have the longevity of a severely inbred goldfish, and became an dated cultural relic within a fortnight. As a result, Trillville’s "Weakest Link" quickly joined tracks like "Email My Heart" and "Beepers as a “hey, remember that?”-eliciting curiosity.
Which brings me back to Drake. It’s certainly possible that Manziel and Wiggins will both succeed with flying colors and “Draft Day” will age well and become an interesting footnote in both of their biographies. But there’s also a strong chance that both of them will wind up a bust, and the track will take on a humorously ironic tone in retrospect.
"Draft day, Ryan Leaf / I’mma keep winnin’ / That’s just my belief”
"Draft day, Sam Bowie / Spent a mil’ but that ain’t nothin’ to me”
"Draft day, J. Russell / Workin’ hard, stayin’ on my hustle”
1. For those of you who don’t like sport ball games or have recently awoke from a coma, Johnny Manziel is a freewheeling, extravagant gunslinger of a quarterback who’s either going to be “Bret Favre who can scramble” or “a smaller Tim Tebow who prays at the altar of himself”, depending on who you ask. Andrew Wiggins is a Canadian small forward touted as “the next LeBron” at this time last year, but who now looks like he might wind-up being “the next Rudy Gay.”
2. Since this is Tumblr, you probably know it from the Doctor Who episode “Bad Wolf.”
Generally, when we make lists or have a special feature, I try to make an interesting or eye-catching image to accompany it. Typically, I’ll put together a few ideas, then BIH and I will narrow it down to the one we want to use. I’ve got a bunch of rejected ideas sitting on my computer, and I felt kind of sorry for them. So, I thought I’d post them, and let them have a moment in the sun.
(And if you’re wondering, yes, as a child I did make sure I played with every one of my toys regularly so none of them would feel neglected.)
Every now and then, excitement over a band’s new material leads to me to seek out and obsess over every new scrap of sound they make. I’m certain that you’ve done the same at one time or another. What I think is particularly interesting about that situation is that it sometimes accidentally creates a mental mark that winds up effecting how you hear or think about that same new material when it’s finally officially released. It might be something as small as always referring to “My Girls” as “House” or as big as making the official version seem wrong.
For me, an example of the latter effect is the track above, a live rendition of a song that later appear on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s Higher Than The Stars EP. Way back when this rendition of the song was recorded and released to the internet in March of 2009, I was hopelessly in love with their self-titled debut album which was released a month earlier, and squarely in ravenous-for-anything-else-of-their’s mode. So, for the six months that separated the appearance of this version and the studio version on aforementioned EP, I listened to this song over and over. As a result, I still think of the live version as being the definitive version of “103” and find the studio version quite a strange listen.
In addition to that half-year span, I think that I had such a strong reaction to the finalized version was just how different it was from the live bootleg above. Hell, they barely sound like the same band. While the final version is dominated by the guitar part, the live version relegates it to a supporting role. The studio incarnation of “103” might be feature buzzzzzzzziest guitars in the Pains’ catalog and they’re a band that compulsively lights candles at the altar of the Jesus and Mary Chain. Normally, I enjoy their noisy, crackling guitar tones, but on this track it just seems to swallow everything up. The vocals and drums are buried low in the mix, and you really have to focus in on them to keep track of them. On the live version, the guitar part is (fairly) clean, and on equal footing with the drums and a cheery synth organ part that’s not present in the studio version. This live arrangement gives the song a sense of ramshackle energy that’s completely lost in the feedback dirge of track found on the EP. That’s why, years later, I still think this live version is the best recording of this song.
Then again, maybe that’s just because I heard it first. I think it’s perfectly plausible that if I were to go back in time to March 2009 and sneak the final version into my iTunes,2 I might be writing about the track above as a minor curio, or even a vastly inferior rendition. But, in this timeline, I’m always gonna prefer the live version.
If you agree with me about the superiority of the track above, you can download it here.
1. This song was the official apartment song of apartment 103 when BIH and I lived there together.
2. As I am now a member of the Foobar2000-using master race, I look back on time as an iTunes user with nothing but shame and regret.
3. Oh, and here are some pictures of the Pains eating pizza that I have saved on my laptop for some reason.
More like the Pains of Being Pizza At Heart, amirite u guys?
Yes, on a surface level, both of their styles seem wholly divorced from one another. How To Dress Well makes warped, half-familiar R&B fever dreams, and Basho plays a unique fusion of Indian classical music and Appalachian folk. I mean, one incorporated elements of traditional Indian ragas and the other interpolates snippets of Ashanti songs.
And yet, listening to HTDW’s cover of Basho’s song “Blue Crystal Fire” the intersection of their two styles seems more logical, in spite of everything in the previous paragraphs. Basho often utilized a resonant, droning vocal style that’s really not that far off from the distorted vocals that Tom Krell tends to use in most of his work as How To Dress Well. And there’s no song in Basho’s catalog that’s as droning and warped as “Blue Crystal Fire” from Visions of the Country. On that track, Basho employs an odd, other-worldly vocal style that’s full of wavering notes and sorrowful timbres.
Krell’s mostly straightforward cover uses that vocal vibrato as a conceptual bridge between their styles. He doubles down on the track’s other-wordly vibes by adding in a chorus of warbling backing vocals and spacey, atmospheric flourishes of ambient sound. The result is not all that far from Basho’s original, yet it still sounds awfully close to rest of How To Dress Well’s output.
It’s always interesting to trace back lines of influence in music, especially when you can make a connection that isn’t obvious at first. Here, this cover draws an unexpected musical link simply by existing, and it proves the validity of that connection in its surprisingly natural execution.
Oh, and it’s also a wonderfully dreamy take on a great song too.
How To Dress Well’s version of this track was released as a 7” bonus record that accompanied deluxe LP editions of his albums Total Loss. Basho’s can be found on his album Visions of the Country, which was recently reissued by Gnome Life records.
PS: A few weeks ago, I saw How To Dress Well play live, and all of the new stuff he played (from his just announced third record) is amazing. I think it’s going to blow his first two records out of the water, and those are both solid albums. I try to keep Dolphin/Shark out of the new record hype train, but wow, I am so on the new record hype train for HTDW right now. YOU CRAZY FOR THIS ONE, SELF.
When it comes to portraying fictional artists in stories, I’ve always preferred shitty ones to geniuses. First, it’s far, far easier to pull off. Aaron Sorkin’s now infamous Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip failed in part because it kept insisting that the tired, toothless sketches on its show-within-a-show were brilliant, incisive pieces of satire.1 Meanwhile, 30 Rock survived in part because it made its fictional show the sort of program that includes sketches like "Fart Doctor" and "Rapping Suri Cruise." I’m not saying that it’s impossible to pull off, but it’s pretty close.
In a way, it reminds me of William F. Nolan’s classic horror analogy about a door and a giant evil insect, popularized and often erroneously credited to Stephen King. It goes like this: if you show the audience a door, and tell them there’s a huge, bloodthirsty cockroach behind it, you’d better not open the door unless you’re sure it’ll surpass their expectations, because even if you put a twelve-foot-tall cockroach back there, they still might be relieved because they had imagined it being thirteen feet tall. Basically, if you’re pointing at something and saying it’s genius, you’re stacking the deck against yourself.
Furthermore, I also tend to prefer stories that don’t insist upon the genius of their artist characters because it allows for smaller and, in my opinion, more realistic and effective stakes. For example, I loved the 2013 film Frances Ha because it allowed its central character (a dancer) to succeed in a modest but meaningful way. In the end, she doesn’t get the perfect job that makes all of her dreams and wishes come true. Instead, she triumphs because she makes something that gives her a sense of pride and artistic accomplishment.2
Which brings us to Mouse Rat,3 the band within the television show Parks and Recreation whose song “5,000 Candles In The Wind”4 is at the top of this post. They’re a group that’s never depicted as brilliant and there’s no sense that they’ll ever score a record deal or write a hit song. And yet, they’re not exactly a shitty band. Sure, their sound is 10000000000000000000000000% derivative, like Third Eye Blind with post-Eddie-Vedder vocals,5 but their songs aren’t especially awful. “5,000 Candles In The Wind” isn’t the sort of song that I enjoy, but its chorus is an undeniable earworm. It’s a prime example of what I’ve just decided to call the third way or the middle path of depicting fictional artists. Like Frances Ha, Parks and Rec doesn’t give Mouse Rat aspirations of being the best band on earth. Instead, something like opening for O.A.R. would be a major accomplishment for them. Allowing the group to have modest aspirations avoids the pitfalls of calling them geniuses, but still allows them to progress and achieve.
If you’d like to listen to more Mouse Rat songs, like “Two Birds Holding Hands” or “Sex Hair,” you can download them all (for free) from the band’s website.
1. Full disclosure: Me, BIH, and our friend Grace were the 3 people who actually watched (and loved) all of Studio 60. In our defense we were in high school and the show isn’t as bad as its abysmal reputation suggests. It’s certainly not a great show and yeah its comedy was often painfully bad, but it’s not the worst show ever made in the history of television.*
2. I’d really really like to talk shit about Girls here, but I haven’t seen the entire series or any of the latest season. And I don’t want to sit through that much okay-ehhhhh-meh-ness to do so. I heard that Hannah Horvath got into Iowa’s creative writing grad school (which is generally considered the best writing program in the country), and what I’ve seen of the show seems to make it fall into the category of stories that go “look at this genius character! look at all of her amazing successes! weeeeee!”**
Also, I wanted to include an eye-rolling emoticon somewhere in this footnote, but this was the closest one I could come up with: (‘)__(‘)
3. aka Scarecrow Boat akaMalice in Chains akaPunch Face Champion akaFlames for Flames akaThe Andy Andy Andys akaAndy and the D-Bags akaCrackfinger akaDepartment of Homeland Obscurity akaFourskin akaPuppy Pendulum aka Possum Pendulum akaPenis Pendulum akaRadwagon akaJet Black Pope akaMuscle Confusion akaJust the Tip akaFiveskin akaThreeskin akaAngel Snack akaNothing Rhymes With Orange akaEverything Rhymes With Orange akaNothing Rhymes with Blorange akaNinja Dick
4. “5,000 Candles In The Wind” is a tribute to Li’l Sebastian, a deceased miniature horse that’s an inexplicably beloved public figure in the town that Parks and Rec focuses on. It was written by the band’s lead singer, Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), when he was tasked with composing a tribute song that was “5,000 times better than ‘Candle In The Wind’” (Elton John’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe, and later Princess Diana).
5. Other descriptions I considered: “like Matchbox 20 fronted by the guy from Godsmack,” “a collab between Creed and an alternate universe version of Sublime that wasn’t as influenced by reggae,” and “the aural equivalent of a Natty-Light-stained frat party t-shirt.”
*Aside from the supposed-to-be-genius-but-actually-terrible sketches, Studio 60 was a fine show that is certainly not nearly as good as Sports Night or The West Wing. I haven’t watched Studio 60 since it aired, but I am confident it’s still better than The Newsroom.
**Speaking as someone who has seen (and who loves) all of GIRLS, I can firmly deny that the show considers Hannah to be a genius. The clip that everyone cites from the pilot of her proclaiming to be “the voice of a generation” is not meant to be taken seriously, it’s an example of her delusions. She does reveal in the season3 finale that she got into Iowa (albeit probably in the nonfiction program, since that’s what her writing has always been), but this and her other various successes are saying more about the specific kind of (non-unique) writer that finds those successes, rather than proclaiming Hannah to be some kind of amazing genius artist. Long story short (too late): GIRLS isn’t really in the 30Rock camp or the Studio 60 camp. Like in most aspects, it’s its own thing.
Nicki Minaj on Keri Hilson’s “Get Your Money Up (Remix)”
Nicki Minaj has been on a fucking tear lately. In the last few months she’s unleashed some of the best featured verses of her career on tracks like “Tapout,” “Danny Glover (Remix),” and “My Nigga (Remix).” And given Nicki’s extremely strong track record, that’s really saying something. Recently though, she’s sounded the hungriest she’s been since her “Monster"-feature days. It’s giving me hope that her upcoming record The Pink Print will wind up being the 110% rap lioness record that she’s had the potential to make her whole career.
So, in honor of Nicki’s recent scene-stealing supporting turns, let’s revisit a colossal verse from yesteryear: her feature on an officially unreleased remix of Keri Hilson’s track “Get Your Money Up,”1 which is full of stuff that I absolutely love.
If you’ve looked at this blog before, you know that I’m a sucker for rap/basketball crossovers, and this track includes one of Nicki’s best hoops metaphors.2 She describes her collaboration with Hilson and fellow featured player Keyshia Cole as a fast break, saying “Keri steal / Keyshia pass / Nicki on the alley-oop” line. Also, that line contains a fantastic bent rhyme of “value” and “alley-oop” which plays off both of the vowels sounds in each of those words.
Nicki’s assonance is absolutely on point in this track as a whole, too. Later, she throws in a subtle repetition of sounds when she references a “Starbucks hazelnut vanilla frappuchino" by emphasizing the short u sound at the end of the first two words. That emphasis, and the fact that she doesn’t hit her end consonants on those words, turn them into a sorta kinda maybe interior rhyme. It also helps enforce the rhythm of her flow by adding a little extra wallop to her emphasized syllables. That’s what I think makes Nicki a truly great rapper: she can quietly slip rather impressive flourishes like that into relatively unimportant lines.
Also she references Darkwing Duck in the last line, so four-year-old me is super impressed / hyped.
If you enjoy this track as much as I clearly do, you can download it here.
1. It’s really unclear as to what this version of the track actually is, aside from the fact that it was never officially released. The original version of it can be found on Keri’s debut album, In A Perfect World… That iteration of the song was very similar to this one, except it had a slightly different bassline and a (cough cough vastly inferior cough) Trina verse instead of Nicki’s. I’ve been unable to find any official declaration of what this track is, so it might be a remix or a rejected alternate version or something else entirely.
2. Nicki mentions basketball all the time in her lyrics, and not just vague general knowledge stuff. Her verse on “My Nigga (Remix)” features several lines of wordplay that’s based around Chris Paul’s then recent shoulder injury. Someone should really interview her about basketball. I’d love to read / watch / listen to that.
"Sports and rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sportsand rap and sports,” said TWG.
Gucci Mane - “Danger’s Not A Stranger (Diplo Remix)”
If you were to visit my apartment during my junior year of college, you’d probably find me and my roommate Travis lounging on the couch, playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and listening to Diplo’s remix of Gucci Mane’s “Danger’s Not A Stranger.”1 We listened to it like it was a religious text. It entranced us. It enthralled us. It bewitched us. According to last.fm, I’ve listened to that track more than forty times, and that doesn’t include plays from Travis’s computer or either of our iPods. Basically, we were fucking bananas about this song.
Naturally, you would like an explanation of why we were so bonkers about this track, and the only one that I can offer is that it’s just an amazing piece of music. The beat Diplo crafted for the song works so perfectly with Gucci’s vocals that it seems like a miracle. Listen closely to the chorus and how Guwop drags out the last syllable of each phrase, because I’m sure that’s the part of the original track that inspired Diplo’s rework, which lays Gucci’s vocals over a dreamy Mariah Carey sample.2 The result is a track that somehow manages to still bump while also being utterly ethereal. And yet, it does feel like an ironic contradiction of a track. Thanks to the drawn-out style of the chorus, and the laid-back flow of the verses, the remix becomes an airy, transcendent street anthem, unlikely as it may seem. All credit is due to Diplo for hearing that in the original track and crafting a remix that draws it out perfectly.
If you enjoy this track, you can download it as part of Mad Decent’s Free Gucci mixtape. Other highlights of the tape include a blips-n-bass banger from Zomby, a surprisingly successful Memory Tapes remix, and a out-of-nowhere Daniel Bedingfield sample.
1. Or me and my other roommate Ben AKA BIH lounging on the couch, playing Bio F.R.E.A.K.S., and listening to Mastodon’s Crack The Skye. Or maybe all three of us would be there and we’d be playing NCAA Football 2005 listening to “Whip My Hair" by Willow Smith.
But, luckily for both you and me, Sam Amidon is smarter than that. After all, the vast majority of his musical output is comprised of interpretations of songs written by others. Typically, that means he’s interpreting some all but forgotten traditional folk songs, but once or twice a record he throws in a rework of a modern song. In the case of his 2010 album I See The Sign, that modern dalliance was the track above, his take on R. Kelly’s “Relief" a bonus track from Kells’s album Love Letter.
The reason that his version works so well is his choice of track is quite a canny one. “Relief” (and all of Love Letter) is a throwback R&B track, devoid of the modern trappings that usually doom any folksy rework to cloying twee precociousness (and uncomfortably racist undertones). Basically, there’s no “Runnin’ her hands through my ‘fro / Bouncin’ on twenty-fours" here. Instead, "Relief" is one of Kelly’s more spiritually-inclined / gospel-influenced love songs, and it’s lyrics are unexpectedly simpatico with the religious themes of many traditional American folk songs. And the chorus’s structure, a steady back and forth based in the phrase "What a relief to know that" lends itself perfectly a populist folk style. In a way, it reminds me of Zilphia Horton's reworking of gospel songs like “This Little Light of Mine” into folk sing-alongs for use in union strikes and the Civil Rights Movement. You can practically hear a live group singing and clapping along with the chorus, right?
And finally, I’d like to point out that the idea to cover this song wouldn’t mean much if the execution was off, so a great deal of credit is due to all of the musicians who contributed to this recording. It’s a pitch perfect realization of the “Relief”-as-a-Pete-Seeger-song concept, from Nico Muhly’s delicate strings to Beth Orton’s subtle backing vocals in the chorus. It’s really a fantastic recording on all fronts.
As I mentioned above, you can find this track on Amidon’s album I See The Sign, but it was also released as a freebie download to promote that album. You can download it here.
PS: This is just a quick reminder that R. Kelly is a horrible human being, even if he is a brilliant artist. He’s totally up on the Genius / Monster Whose Works Themselves Are Not Offensive Mount Rushmore with Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski.