Thom Yorke, studio gangsta: Screw Rock 'n' Roll Top 69 Singles of 2006, Nos. 11-15
A few links to the last of my Stylus material: a blurb on Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." for our Top 50 Songs of 2007 list, and my Singles Jukebox farewell piece on Keak Da Sneak's "That Go." Also, I contribute some haiku to our Final Ever Annual Haiku Marathon. I won't list every one that was mine, but I will take credit for the Wilco. And really, just go over to Stylus and read everything you can, because everything from our final week is great.
And post-Stylus, I'm very excited that the Sydney Morning Herald ran my article about Halloween in Australia. It's only the biggest broadsheet in the country.
I kept seeing complaints that Timbo and Furtado are unconvincing in this song, but I'm not seeing it. I like their banter, and if it doesn't sound like they are actually lovers, they do sound like sparring artists, each trying to outdo the other. It doesn't work as a cute, Broadway song where the leads sing flirtatiously at each other, but it does work as the pop version of tag team rapping. And maybe that's even better-suited to a track like this, because this is a song that just begs you to sing along with it. And if you're singing along to a radio hit, you're not trying to turn in a good acting performance, you're taking pleasure in the words and the phrasing. And as far as singing along is concerned, Furtado's parts are much more fun than Timbaland's. She gets lines like "Is your game MVP like Steve Nash?" and "Pay attention to me, I don't talk for my health." Even Timbo's best line, "I want you on my team," only works because of the snappy comeback: "So does everybody else."
Note: I linked to that video because I'm sure you've all seen the official one. The weird thing about this: the puppet is a better actor than the woman he performs with.
For all the talk of "Where's Cam" this year (his Mom had a stroke, that's where he was!) Killa wasn't exactly a major force in '06 either. After the still-born Killa Season, it was all Jim Jones, all-Ballin' from the Dips camp, with no Cam in sight. Except for "Weekend Girl," that is.
Kelefa Sanneh said it should have been a summer smash, and he's right. It's a classic Cam come-on, half "Hey Ma" (the breezy, laidback beat) and half Purple Haze-style absurdity. It's simply Cam talking about spending the weekend with a casual fling, but if you know Cam, you know that a weekend in the life of Mr. Trade Eight Whips for a Spaceship is never simple, or at least not something to be expressed simply. "No hassle, heifer. Did we battle? Never/We went Easter shopping, copping them pastel leathers." He offers a woman the opportunity to be his "Friday to Sunday," and still "make work Monday," and it seems like he's doing her a favor. It's song like this that make me relieved Cam's dropping new shit next week.
If you're not nodding in appreciation at this entry, or asking "Jonathan, why the fuck isn't this song in your top 10?", then you need to tie your hair like Deuce Bigalow. Brand New makes one of the best albums of the year and damn near the entire world is sleeping on them. It's straight embarassing, really. When y'all catch up, you're going to be acting like you were on this all alone, but I tell you, right now it's looking pretty lonely in the Brand New appreciation society.
Fuck what you think you know about this band. I love Deja Entendu, their previous album, but even if you don't, that doesn't matter. This is the biggest step forward a rock band has made over the course of one album since Radiohead made The Bends. I'm not even kidding. It's a sprawling and ambitious work, but never ostentatious or excessive. I'm not sure how to make myself any clearer: this band is terrifyingly good. As of now, every second before you hear The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me for the first time is a second wasted.
"Sowing Season (Yeah!)" was the first track and first single, and it translated Brand New's quiet-loud guitar rock approach into its new style, and while this song retains that quiet-loud dynamic, its distinguished more by the contrast of tense verses followed by gushing release during the chorus. Intricate winding guitar lines get swamped by vast waves of distortion and a maelstrom of unrestrained screaming. And Jesse Lacey, who on Entendu sounded like a smart-ass undergraduate (which I mean as a compliment) sounds genuinely disturbed. His lyrics are death-obsessed, and while he focuses unerringly on the afterlife, the void in the music hints at the fear of the void should the afterlife not arrive. I don't know a lot about Lacey's personal life while Brand New recorded this album, and it doesn't really matter - the appeal isn't in some kind of lurid Amy Winehouse-esque tabloid album - but the lyrical thrust of this album is unhinged and terrible. So much of it is chillingly bereft, like something has happened to the people responsible for it that dehumanized them. It has the same hermetic, isolated quality as albums like Kid A and The Moon and Antarctica, records that feel like their writers had lost the ability to exist in the everyday world with the rest of us. "Sowing Season (Yeah!)" is like that, but it's one of the cheerier songs on the album.
"You know we back right?" Well, of course Pusha-T and Malice were, but "Mr. Me Too" also heralded the return of the Neptunes, or Pharrell at least, to the world of premium beat-making. The gray synth-line rolls back and forth over a thin snare, a monotone pulse which would be called avant-garde except that all it did was confirm Pharrell, despite all recent mediocrity, could still make unearthly sounds coalesce into a pop song.
When Ian Cohen reviewed Thom Yorke's solo album The Eraser, he said:
"It's one of the least psychedelic albums ever made—timbres tend to fall within a narrow spectral range between ash and steel. And yet these cold, gray slabs of sound create a humid, all-encompassing atmosphere that begins as alienating but ultimately becomes familiar.
That description could just as easily applied to "Mr. Me Too," and to the rest Clipse's Hell Hath No Fury. Interestingly, Cohen gave the Yorke album an A-, but he hates the Clipse record. But Thom Yorke solo and the Clipse are suprisingly similar. Another Cohen sentence: "It certainly sounds monochromatic on first try, but close listens reveal intriguing details crawling about; tongue clicks, wood blocks, twitchy shakers, and undulating serpents of bass among them." Pusha-T to Thom: "OK, everybody meet Mr. Me Too."
And the lyrics, the one aspect on which you would expect Yorke and the Clipse to diverge sharply, aren't as different as you'd expect. Yorke and the Clipse both present dehumanized, paranoid visions of the world, and while the Clipse are more often presented as a reason to be paranoid, Yorke tends toward an ambivalent style where he could just as easily be the oppressor as the oppressed. He isn't going to declaim, "Who gonna stop us? Not a god damn one of ya/Mean with the re-up, nigga we street tumblers," but he won't shy away from whispering "We hope that you choke," and implying that if things don't turn out as he hopes, he's more than willing to speed them along. And if Thom Yorke hides threats in his anxiety, the Clipse tucks uncertainty into its indolence: "You don't wanna know what the fuck I spent on it/Tomorrow ain't promised so we live for the moment.
Before Stylus closed down, I had intended on writing a Top 10 list of songs by Australian artists that described an Australia I recognized. Despite my critical comments I don't hate all Australian music, but I too rarely recognize anything that looks like the world around me. Australians, for a start, aren't particularly good at describing itself ourselves in pop culture, which is a broad, and possibly ridiculous statement, but I'm going to stick with it, save for a few qualifications. Australians are good at describing ourselves in some cultural forms: there are many plays, novels and visual artworks that present a compelling, distinctly Australian viewpoint that is accurate, recognizably local and commendably unforced. But when it comes to writing pop songs or tv shows, or even much of the time, movies, Australians flounder. We either ignore the problem and produce a blandly generic work that could have come from any country in the western world, or we overcompensate, descending into farcical stereotype, compiling an embarassing collection of ockers, eccentrics and buffoons to represent our culture. Last year, Scottish comedian Billy Connolly appeared on Andrew Denton's night time talk show Enough Rope and commented, "Scotland's one of the country's in the world that has mistaken the tourist crap for the culture." Denton's studio audience laughed appreciatively, but seemed to completely fail to notice that Australia does the same thing, with Steve Irwin, McLeod's Daughters, Kath and Kim, Men at Work, etc., etc.
Augie March, though, are one of the exceptions to this rule, one of the best chroniclers of Australian culture in pop song since You Am I in its heyday, but the literary bent of the Go-Betweens. "One Crowded Hour" isn't overtly Australian, and, indeed, there isn't anything uniquely Australian in the lyrics, but it nevertheless retains a distinctly local flavor. And most importantly, it's a flavor that I recognize not from tourist paraphenalia, but in the actual people around me. It doesn't shy from intellectualism, as so much of our cultural output does, but it never takes on an elitist air. With its talks of being thrown to the lions, and metaphors of badly-ending sea voyages, it nods toward classical legends, but the first verse sets the songs in distinctly ordinary circumstances, a pub where a boring band is playing:
Should you expect to see something that you hadn't seen
In somebody you'd known since you were sixteen;
if love is a bolt from the blue, then what is that bolt but a glorified screw?
and that doesn't hold nothing together
Far from these nonsense bars and their nowhere music it's making me sick
And I know it's making you sick
There's nothing there, it's like eating air
It's like drinking gin with nothing else in
That doesn't hold me together.
Glenn Richards loves words, and his writing there is as much a demonstration of his mastery over the language as it is story telling. He puns on "bolt" and "screw," describes a feeling that is "like eating air" and impatiently dismisses what I imagine are familiar haunts as "nonsense bars" where they play "nowhere music." Time for another contentious statements: Glenn Richards is the successor to David Williamson, and it's about time Australian pop music had a writer worthy of that praise. Even if it is a little overenthusiastic.
The listeners of national radio station Triple J voted the song the best single of 2006; obviously I only think it's the eleventh, but it was a wonderful result, demonstrating that the band is resonating with the people whose culture it so elegantly chronicles.
Labels: Top 69 Singles 2006