Saturday, October 18, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "Live Your Life" by T.I. feat. Rihanna

Well, this one is just baffling. The fact that a 4-year-old internet meme--"Numa Numa." Come on. You know, this asshole--was somehow tapped for a hip-hop song. The fact that it hit No. 1, if only for a week. That fact that its not a total trainwreck. Everything about it, really.

The thing is, detached from the actual "Numa Numa" samples that start and close the song, as well as Rihanna jacking the melody for the pre-chorus, it's a solid enough single. The T.I. sound of massive synths and subtle orchestration sounds makes the songs sound huge, and the effortlessly bluster of the lyrics matches up (my fave: "I'm the opposite of moderate, immaculately polished/With the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid/Allergic to the counterfeit, impartial to the politics/Articulate but still would grab a nigga by the collar quick.")

The other thing, though, is that even the 12-second bookends of "Numa Numa" are enough to color the whole song. How did this happen? Did T.I. call Rihanna up after a late night of browsing YouTube to pitch the song? "Sup, girl? Listen, you wanna come sing the hook on my new single? Nah, nah, I want you to sign the song from this video. This shit is bumpin'!" The song would have to be amazing to avoid being overshadowed by the premise, but it is not.

As a number one single, this just feels inconsequential, and there's no reason it should have dethroned T.I.'s vastly superior "Whatever You Like," which has already been honored with a quickie "Weird" Al parody. It's mildly interesting to see that internet culture is mainstream enough for T.I. to jack a beat from a novelty video, but I think the one-week stint on top is appropriate: there's the initial "...seriously?" reaction, the realization it's okay enough, and then the realization "okay enough" isn't reason to stick around. Looking forward to Jay-Z's take on "All Your Base," though.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Concert Review: TV on the Radio, the Electric Factory, Philadelphia, Oct. 10

TV on the Radio are one of those bands that it's easy to imagine failing live because of the intricate production and loads of intertwined effects that go into their sound. But much like Radiohead, a band whose sound seems to present similar challenges, they counter most of it by tweaking the songs to rock a little harder and swing a bit more to make them translate well to a live setting. It can be a whole hell of a lot more impressive to recklessly plow through songs with a dozen things going on than to pummel away on just a few chords, and when TV on the Radio gets into a groove they are a tremendously exciting live act.

Still, it can be a little hard to keep things loose with so much going on, and at first the band seems a little boxed in by their equipment. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe has a secondary mix and a synth with an entire rack of effects pedal up front, and bassist Gerard Smith has graduated from standing shyly with his back to the audience to hiding entirely behind a barricade of keyboards, synthesizers, laptops, even partially tucked behind an amp. David Sitek is also kind of off in a corner, still, shredding and swinging the wind chimes that hang off his headstock, but back behind a sixth touring member who mostly plays sax. It can take awhile for all the instruments and effects to be tweaked from song to song, which isn't long enough to derail the show, but there's just enough downtime between songs for the crowd to deflate a little and hamper the momentum.

Although the band shifts toward a more guitar-based approach live, the rocking songs werent' really the highlights. The band's greatest asset is having Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, two of the best vocalists out there right now. Anytime they got a chance to harmonize, like on "Dreams," it was captivating. Malone, in particular, shines, and it's great to see him getting a high-profile lead vocal on the new single "Golden Age." The band really seemed to be getting into a groove at the very end, when the rocked-up "Satellite" lead an amped crowd into the excellent encore. The mellow "Love Dog" was a surprising highlight, showcasing Tunde's vocals and sounding all the world like a dark, downer '80s ballad. "A Method" features most of the band on percussion, including wood blocks, bells, and even Tunde hitting a cymbal as he sings. The rousing end, with Sitek pounding a single tom on the floor, is a great reminder that TV on the Radio is. And the finale of "Staring at the Sun" got a bigger reaction than the band's breakthrough "Wolf Like Me."

As with the Against Me!/Ted Leo/Future of the Left gig I saw the previous night at the Electric Factory, a rigid crowd, coupled with some poor sound mixing, hurt the atmosphere a bit. In the first few rows, the guitar crunch smothered over the finer details of the song, including the sax parts, but it seemed like a more even mix further back in the crowd. The band also took a bit to really get into a groove, though, and the show got more and more engrossing with each track.

This may be more of a commentary on indie crowds in general than TV on the Radio in particular, most kids were more concerned with snapping video on their iPhones than enjoying the moment. I also saw at least one grumpy greenhorn concertgoer, who frowned the whole time and shoved people who were bumped into him from the pit. (Here's a tip, you doofus: it's a rock show. People dance, the crowd is chaotic, and you have to be ready to be bounced a little. If you're going to be a dick, sit in the back or don't come at all. No one likes you.)

About a third of the way into the set, I decided to relocate back to the only section of the crowd where anyone was jumping around. During "Satellite" I was bouncing and singing along, and made eye contact a few times with another guy who was doing the same. After the song, he went out of his way to grab me and say "Thank you!" simply for being one of the few in the crowd showing energy. I kept it up, and when the show ended he thanked me again and gave me a quick hug. I saw where he was coming from, though. It's a sad state of affairs when indie rockers are so rigid and starched that I made someone's night just by, you know, shaking my ass a little.

Young Liars
The Wrong Way
Dancing Choose
Golden Age
Wolf Like Me
Halfway Home
Blues From Down Here
Shout Me Out

Love Dog
A Method
Staring at the Sun

Concert Review: Against Me! (with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists; the Future of the Left), the Electric Factory, Philadelphia, Oct. 9

It's disheartening how single-minded crowd can sap a show of its excitement. The Oct. 9 triple bill of the Future of the Left, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Against Me! promised--and delivered--three high-energy sets, but the sea of Against Me! fanboys and fangirls was totally apathetic to the warm-up acts.

The show's highlight might have been the Future of the Left, a trio which sports two former McLusky members in drummer Jack Egglestone and singer/guitarist Andy "Falco" Falkous (who has lost so much weight that I didn't recognize him at first.) They've got all the bite and sneer McLusky had, though Falco uses a keyboard just as often as he does a guitar these days. He even uses a loop pedal to stack vocals, building up a kaleidoscope of screams to pummel the audience. The band adds electronics in without feeling any less like a rock band, but the crowd was lost the second they ventured to step past power chords. At one point, Falco was working up a surge of feedback by running a drumstick over his guitar strings. Some manatee in the crowd was looking down, idly playing with the tip of her stretched-out blouse. She looked up to the chaos on stage for maybe half a second, then looked back down to over-extended garment as though there wasn't even a band present. What can you do with an audience like that?

Ted Leo, who I assumed would headline when I bought my ticket, was also similarly disrespected. I spent a few songs in the second row behind a bunch of teens hugging the rail for that coveted up-front spot, too busy dreaming about Against Me! to remember to dance, clap or otherwise acknowledge the Pharmacists. I told a girl in front of me I was there for Ted, and asked if we could swap spots until Against Me! "I won't be able to see," she protested. "...see what?" I countered. "You're not even paying attention." "But I won't be able to see." I even offered $20 for collateral, but she refused. The next guy I asked was more reasonable. (You're a generous dude, Steve!)

Granted, Ted didn't do himself any favors with a questionable setlist. Only one track each for The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak. Five Shake the Sheets tunes, but no "Me and Mia." He omitted "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," his trademark live song and a tremendous closer. Live, Ted's spastic vocals get room to stretch out live, and he gets to show off his guitar chops and add a little noise. It elevates even the so-so material, and the band still sounds tight, but devoting over half your set to your newest, weakest album and new material isn't accommodating to the disinterested crowd, nor is it throwing any bones to the few fans scattered amongst it. But, again, what can you do to kids that are there just to see one band and songs they already know, not expressing actual interest in hearing new music?

Consider me pretty soured by the time Against Me! came out to do their thing to rapturous applause. They play well, but it seems too basic and too traditional to stir up that much excitement. It comes down to some guys in black shirts and jeans playing vaguely folksy punk, with just enough Joe Strummer/Billy Bragg twang and grit on the vocals to set it apart. But once you're past the signature hits, it just starts to feel like watching any number of adequate punk bands. (I also have to say that punk fans aren't as tough as they used to be; I was able to muscle my way all the way to the front row AND get a spot on the railing, front row center!) But I guess neither a seeming lack of interest in music nor a wimpy crowd are surprising for a band that's only half-filling the venue on the strength of a Spin album of the year. I caught their encore from the back of the hall, and kids were steadily filing out instead of sticking around for more, so I guess the crowd's interest wasn't even held by what they came for.

This all makes the show sound like a real downer, which it wasn't. All three bands played well and were raucous enough to enjoy. It's just that anyone who was ready to do so had to fight against the will of the crowd to do so. One can only imagine how much better the show would have played in a smaller venue, with a few hundred excited fans packed together. Maybe they can try this again once the residual Spin hype dies out.

Improv Music Theories: Loops

Pango (3:55:06 AM): Looping is really blowing up in music, I think.
Prince (3:55:27 AM): Perhaps.
Pango (3:55:52 AM): It's the natural progression from long, complicated compositions to formulaic verse/chorus patterns down to repetition at even smaller level.
Pango (3:56:18 AM): I think rap and electronic were big in this stage.
Prince (3:56:20 AM): So we'll be back to congos and maracas before long?
Pango (3:56:26 AM): Rap, especially earlier stuff, was just a drum loop.
Pango (3:56:30 AM): And techno relies on it.
Pango (3:56:34 AM): But I mean really small loops.
Pango (3:56:38 AM): Think of how minimal the Field is.
Pango (3:56:48 AM): Or how Panda Bear and El Guincho are just tape loops of short phrases.
Pango (3:56:56 AM): Animal Collective is using electronic loops.
Pango (3:57:02 AM): And bands use it live to layer stuff - Final Fantasy.
Pango (3:57:24 AM): Epileptic Peat, who used to play around State College, looped huge patterns on his eight-string bass, custom built, and played live Final Fantasy style.
Prince (3:57:42 AM): You might be onto something, but let's give it time.
Prince (3:57:45 AM): All the time in the world.
Pango (3:58:09 AM): Talking Heads tried to do it on Remain in Light, but without the benefit of electronics.
Pango (3:58:21 AM): Which is why it's such an eerie album, it's a tight, funky live band stuck in a pattern.
Prince (4:00:07 AM): I dunno, it's 4 AM and I don't want to think.
Pango (4:05:39 AM): Fuck Buttons is an example of it's popularity in noise.
Pango (4:08:08 AM): TV on the Radio, fuck, even the Future of the Left uses it. Guys from MCLUSKY were using a loop pedal, for vocals, nonetheless!
Pango (4:08:20 AM): Like it was just a normal thing for a rock band to do, a noisy, guitar rock band
Pango (4:10:17 AM): Battles is looping rock.
Pango (4:09:11 AM): I once saw the Violent Femmes play, and they used a seashell.
Pango (4:09:15 AM): A SEASHELL.
Pango (4:09:18 AM): But that is another thing entirely.

Bonus Note to Self:
Pango (4:13:24 AM): I like that they ignored an obvious closer in that previous song.
Pango (4:13:48 AM): If you fade out in the penultimate song, it feels like you're emerging into something new with the real last track. It's like having two last tracks.
Pango (4:13:57 AM): It's a very pleasing arrangement.