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The all-inclusive, ever-changing, and uncomfortably flexible guide to all things music in the 2010's.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Cunninlynguists - Oneirology: A+

Why doesn’t Pitchfork talk about Cunninlynguists? Why does it seem like, in the decade or so that this Kentucky rap group has been releasing fantastic long-players to amorous fans, that not one major publication has cared enough to review any album they’ve released, let alone acknowledge their existence? It seems like, somewhere around 2002, Cunninlynguists dropped off the radar of the mainstream media. And it’s borderline criminal that, as a result, a release as perfect as their newest, Oneirology, will not reach the ears of people that haven’t already been tuned in to the live updates of the southern rap circuit.

I wouldn’t be so frustrated about this travesty if Oneirology had turned out how I had expected it to. Last year, the group’s producer and resident white guy, Kno, released his first solo album, Death Is Silent. The record had a sound that was clearly his, in line with what he had been doing with his main group. However, the album relied too heavily on trite boom-bap percussion and old-timey samples to support the already mediocre rhymes of both Kno and his guests. The result was something that came off as more referential than nostalgic, more notable in my mind for featuring a sample of Kanye West’s “Lost in the World” a week before My Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped than anything ability-related.

In retrospect, Death Is Silent seems to have worked in Kno’s favor. Now, the album sounds like an exaltation of the man’s middling tendencies, cleaning his creative pallet so he can craft an album that looks to the future as much as it does the past. Constantly, Oneirology’s production presents a new package in familiar wrapping. First song “Predormitum” ends its measures with Notorious B.I.G.’s famous first line in “Juicy”, but its presence is made to serve a purpose, a key word omitted in order to introduce the album’s recurring theme (more on that later). The drums of Oneirology have a musty touch that could be considered boom-bap, but they are tactile, crisp and far from repetitive. The album relies on the pre-recorded hooks of many a forgotten ‘60’s rock group and there is even an outright rip of an Outkast song at the end of “Hard As They Come”. However, not once do these borrowings come off as creative theft. Instead, the incorporation of these samples gives them newfound meaning, and Oneirology succeeds at the seemingly impossible task of building a classic from the classic material of others.

If it sounds like I’m trying to justify the album as opposed to praising it, I only intend to briefly rebuke the main argument people have against Cunninlynguists before getting into Oneirology’s original material. A song like “Murder”, whose hook revolves around a frail voice singing “If I could get away with murder / I’d take my gun and I’d commit it,” could have been a predictable dirge on Death Is Silent, but here it makes a complete stylistic turnaround, glamorous synths and lively bass painting a truly enchanting night on the town. Big K.R.I.T. sounds oddly at home in this glitz and glamour, his opening verse more buoyant here than anywhere on his newest mixtape. “Enemies With Benefits” is nearly tear inducing in its saintly beauty, chimes and a choir creating an angelic backdrop for Kno’s own filtered vocals, which sound like that of M83’s Anthony Gonzalez. Oneirology is composed of arrangements all vastly rich and vivid, probably the best beats Kno has ever made.

But back to Kanye for a second. That Death Is Silent sampled a song that had not been released yet is indicative of Cunninlynguists’ obsession with timeliness, a defining quality of the lyrical content of Oneirology that portrays the group as fanatical digesters of pop culture. “Here’s you jacking off to Halle Berry on the shitter / And firin’ a nigga ‘cause he checkin’ on his Twitter / You mad ‘cause ain’t nobody taggin’ you in all them pictures / Well here’s a good one of you taggin’ your wife’s sister,” goes one of Deacon’s particularly grin-inducing lines on the profane “Get Ignorant.” Even if people won’t know what Twitter is in a decade, the cathartic message of a co-worker going intellectually postal on a boss will be well-conveyed, not only because it’s scathing and precise, but because Kno masterfully injects a guy screaming “No!” in the pauses between Deacon’s rants.

Elsewhere, the group strikes gold in finding profundity in profanity. Cunninlynguists have always been filed under “Conscious hip-hop” and Oneiorology has plenty of that, but the group works best when it takes conceited themes and turns them into something strangely arresting. The best example of this is “Enemies With Benefits.” Although it features that gorgeous production mentioned before, it’s a song basically about fucking the woman you hate, a topic I’m sure Gucci Mane could turn into a heaping pile of shit. However, with this prompt, the group comes up with the album’s most memorable lines, the guys trading off verses that masterfully exaggerate just how bad this girl is but just how good she is in bed. “She might literally love me to death,” Natti reflects. “We had a stairway to heaven ‘til I fell down the steps.” “I get the cleanest dome,” Kno retorts. “I mean it holmes. She never be alone ‘cause she be at home.”

Oh yeah, and Oneirology has a theme, which is dreams (Oneirology is the study of dreams if you haven’t looked it up by this point). With the current political climate, one can get some impression of what such a thread might entail (“This shit don’t change like if Obama would’ve lost,” Deacon says at one point), but the truth is the album explores all aspects of the dream. From the mechanical explanations in its interludes to the mythological description in penultimate track “Hypnopomp”, the subject matter is taken very seriously, creating a sly concept album that never displays its intentions so obtusely as to distract from the actual music. Oneirology balances this hodgepodge of motifs and brilliant talents in a way that allows the group to experiment and still sound poised and cohesive. It’s an exceedingly professional album in this sense, one that makes a point to never strive for one overarching statement. The great irony is that, as a result, it’s an accidental magnum opus. It sells an admirable statement by trying as hard as it can not to.


The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck: A-

Don’t I sound like the die-hard Mountains Goats fan’s Antichrist. I got into The Mountain Goats this year, and All Eternals Deck is my first exposure to them and golly do I love their sound! It’s mostly acoustic, which is pretty campy and neat and this John Darnielle guy sounds like a nasally Colin Meloy so I’m pretty psyched. “Age of Kings” is more of a downer, so the orchestra just sounds totally appropriate. And I don’t know who Charles Bronson or Liza Minelli is, but the songs dedicated to them are fun and I just think it’s so cool for him to write a song about a celebrity I think more musicians should do that. And The Mountain Goats’ old fans are so mean to insult Darnielle enough to make him write a song like “Damn These Vampires.” Still, I like it ‘cause it sounds really cool and I love vampires cuz I like Twilight and lalalalallalalalalallalala.

OK, so I might have been exaggerating there, but the ire that John Darnielle received from fans of his raw, home-recorded past for upping the production quality of The Mountain Goats was significant enough to have him address the issue on the first track of his newest album, All Eternals Deck. Although that song is a tuneful, wry satire of such criticism, you wouldn’t need to hear the song to see that Darnielle’s newest benefits from such improvements. Of course the use of such sell-out techniques as a choir, an orchestra and a working mic all help the guy get down his musicianship and concentrate more on the tempered intimacy for which he is known. Darnielle is just as clever a lyricist as ever, and All Eternals Decks’s production doesn’t distract from what he’s trying to accomplish. In fact, it often emphasizes such points. When the barbershop quartet (you read me right) drops out in the chorus of “High Hawk Season”, leaving Darnielle alone to sneer as he strums his acoustic, it only elevates his threat that “The fever’s ‘bout to break.” That cinematic orchestra at the end of “Age of Kings” adds a sinister aspect to the song, creating a precarious tango if you will to conclude Darnielle’s cautionary tale.

And I don’t actually know very much about Charles Bronson or Liza Minelli, but Darnielle gives personalities to the vaguely remembered public figures in their respective songs that would be enjoyable for their cleverness and complementing arrangements (I especially like the “Never get away” part in “Liza Minelli Forever”) if their narratives were about regular people. Darnielle has this unique ability to write poetic lyrics that can be properly put to music. His succinctness is a treasure that warrants close examination and justifies his penchant for syllable-clashing song titles. His three-man outfit may be trading up in terms of production value, but his style is still minimalist, the core through which his honesty and acumen remain brilliantly intact.


The Weeknd - House of Balloons: A-

Ladies and gentleman, the post-modern R&B artist has arrived and, no, it’s not Drake. Slapping the soul scene of exaggerating crooners and identity-challenged dubsteppers across the face from some basement in Toronto comes The Weeknd, a one-man smooth machine that is equal times precious as it is troubled and disparaging. Every moment of its free debut, House of Balloons is packed with gorgeous melodies, but you will not have to go very far to run right into the group’s main man, Abel Tesfaye’s massive id, pulsing at you and erupting every so often to make you uncomfortable as you dance your ass off (and do… other things). Presenting the unrated Thank Me Later, the album one lying ho away from an all-out nervous breakdown.

That’s House of Balloons in a nutshell. If you’re easily offended, then pay no mind to the stuff you heard about sampling two Beach House songs; this shit is bleak. Take “The Party and The After Party” for example. The song features a sample of Beach House’s “Master of None”, jingling beautifully under Tesfaye’s nimble come-ons. His voice is like that of The-Dream’s, expressive and versatile. “Louis V bag / tats on your arms / High heel shoes / make you six feet tall,” he sings in the song’s chorus, genuinely admiring his female muse as he steps back to allow Victoria Legrand’s faint voice to take center stage to sing, “You always come to the party.”

Sounds cute, right? Well the song’s called “The Party and The After Party” for a reason. Within two iterations of the song’s chorus, that Beach House sample drops out of the mix, as if to disrupt the fa├žade so Tesfaye’s true self can show. It isn’t long into the track’s second half before he begins a verse with, “I got a new girl call her Rudolf / She’ll probably OD before I show her to mama,” his voice not changing at all amidst the song’s sensual production. It’s a double-take kind of moment, one you never expect to be so frank, even this far into the album. But it gets worse. In the next line he sings, “All these girls try to tell me she got no love / But all these girls never ever got a blowjob,” and, in the next line, he outright threatens the girl he’s clearly having sex with, singing “Ringtone on silent / And if she stop then I might get violent.” It’s a pretty deadly stanza, shamelessly callous in its brutal execution.

I don’t think lines like these are actually meant by Tesfaye, though. House of Balloons comes off less to me as the coke-fueled trifles of an actual sadist and more of the concentrated release of some serious sexual frustration into the chauvinism that never was. Unlike Drake’s Thank Me Later, an album that’s impetus was the trouble with fame, House of Balloons is aggravated with never getting to that drug-addled mainland. And, because of this, the album is a lot more vitriolic and misogynistic. One of its most memorable lines is in “Loft Music”, when Tesfaye deadpans this gem of raw profanity: “Eddie Murphy shit / Yeah we trade places/ Rehearse last of them / Then we fuck faces.”

But I don’t really have a problem with quoting these lines, because all over House of Balloons, we can clearly see that Tesfaye suffers from some serious insecurity issues. The guy sums up his hollow relationship with the girls he may or may not be shtupping better than a thousand Thank Me Laters in that infamous stanza in “The Party and the After Party” (“They don’t want my love / They just want my potential.”), encapsulating some deeply corrupted self-criticism. Tesfaye rejects a girl’s frailty in favor of his own on the chorus of “Wicked Games” (“Get me off of this / I need confidence in myself”) and chalks up the copious amounts of play he gets on the record to money as the motive in the chorus of “The Morning”. There’s not much analysis needed in a line like “Bring the drugs baby, I can bring my pain,” and that’s the key to the fucked up beauty of House of Balloons: It is probably the most oblique case study ever self-released.

If it weren’t so contradictory, House of Balloons would be the sexiest album released in fifteen years. Regardless of his gender politics, Tesfaye knows his way around a baby-making beat, and even writes one of the year’s biggest club bangers in the title track. The album is convoluted and can be engulfing if listened to in just the right context. Troubled Casanovas will be fucking to it for years, but there will be plenty of others that will just sit back in awe of its beautiful disaster unfolding. I’m not saying it’s better or worse to be in either of those camps or even that they’re mutually exclusive. I’m just saying you should listen to House of Balloons to get an idea of which one you’re in.


Alela Diane - Alela Diane & Wild Divine: B+

An album so indistinct that the artist had to repeat her name in the title to remind the listener who they’re listening to. Alela Diane & Wild Divine is a very pleasant, very tuneful piece of country-tinged lite rock. However, it’s highly forgettable and people will come out of it remembering what it stands for more than what it actually is. Amidst the competent arrangements, Diane has some pretty clever lines like “Death is a hard act to follow” and “She’s looking like it’s 1995,” but they’re buried in there, tough to find if you’re not looking. The unfortunate thing is that people won’t inspect that much of Wild Divine, and, frankly, I don’t blame them. This album is somewhere in quality between Laura Marling’s I Speak Because I Can and The Watson’s Sisters’ Talking to You, Talking to Me, so my suggestion would be to get the former and leave it at that. While not bad, Wild Divine could use more definition, considering there are literally hundreds of albums like it. In the end, you know the drill. Just because it’s agreeable background music doesn’t make it necessarily worth your time.