Tuesday, May 18, 2010

JANELLE MONÁE: Metropolis: The Chase Suite

Janelle Monáe - Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition)
Janelle Monāe's first full-length album (The ArchAndroid) comes out today, and it's a good time to go back to the beginning of the story and review. By "the story" I don’t mean Monāe's press-kit bio. I mean the story of Cindi Mayweather, the organic-android singer on the run from the law in the futuristic hellscape of Metropolis, sentenced to disassembly for falling in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. In Metropolis, under the authoritarian rule of the Wolfmasters, robots are forbidden to love. You know the rules.

As the product of a prog-rock-fueled youth, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and it's too bad musicians who develop a narrative across numerous releases are such a rarity. Jaded Lou Reeds will tell you that pop music is all about sex appeal and authenticity, and concept-nerds like Magma or Coheed & Cambria are an affront to the strum and grit of rock-and-roll™. Whatever. Pop music is all fiction and don’t kid yourself. Liquid Swords is not real and neither is "Folsom Prison Blues".

I think Janelle Monāe's exuberant, unironic creativity is a breath of fresh air. She has an amazing voice, and actually uses her entire range, sweeping from lower registers to soaring high notes and changing her inflection to suit the narrative and mood. She could easily get by on the strength of that voice, in fact, and make a career putting out well-sung and totally generic pop/soul records. Lucky for us, however, she's aiming much, much higher.

Yes, her discography (or at least this first phase) will always be accompanied by a "When we last left our heroes…" summary, but even if it is fairly well-worn territory for science fiction, the sci-fi concept doesn't prevent her from coming up with some outrageously good songs. In fact, if the difference between the on-concept songs here (four, not counting the orchestrated spoken-word intro) and the unrelated bonus tracks (an original and a cover of Charlie Chaplain’s “Smile”) is any indication, it seems like Monāe does her best writing when she's immersed in the dystopian Tomorrowland in her imagination. The unrelated songs are the weakest on the EP; well-sung, professionally accompanied, but lacking the zing! of the other tracks. That's only minor caveat, by the way, and it looks like The ArchAndroid sticks to the Cindi Mayweather saga (it features parts two and three of the four part suite, with this EP being part one.)

The music here is jubilant future soul; syncopated drum loops, loping horns, fizzing guitar solos, turntables, gothic organs, Disney strings, and a people-mover momentum that tumbles through an impressive array of ideas. "Violet Starts Happpy Hunting!!!" blasts out of the gate with a sneering/soaring proclamation: "I- I- I'm an alien from outerspace! I'm a cyber girl without a face, a heart or a mind!" and Monāe rides an Outkast-esque beat, all choppy rhythm guitars and careening synths, her vocals punctuated with a chorus of backup vocals. The thrill I get from this song is identical to the thrill of seeing the first Star Wars (A New Hope, not The Phantom Menace) for the first time. This segues into the highlight, "Many Moons", which is exactly the kind of song that obliterates everything else you were listening to this week. A wiry organ introduces the opening verse, sung in a husky Grace Jones voice and the rest of the song is packed with so many cool moments and inventive details that it would be shame to spoil them. I remember hearing this song for the first time; every time I thought I had it pegged, another hook popped up out of nowhere, sliding naturally into the track's structure.

A classical guitar, what sounds like an accordion and a cathedral organ accompany a robot's aria during the brief "Cybotronic Purgatory" and then the descending horn samples of "Sincerely, Jane" drag Cindi into the underground Wonderworld. None of these arrangements are without precedent or anything like that, but they're remarkably fresh and memorable. This EP never gets boring, no matter how often I hear it, and I am convinced that Janelle Monāe is one of the most inventive and exciting artists in pop music right now. I'm glad she's here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

CECIL TAYLOR: Conquistador!

Cecil Taylor - Conquistador!
Just look at that album cover. Cecil Taylor is going to play the piano now, and he's going to play it exactly how he wants and if you don't like it he doesn't care. Conquistador! is a 1967 Blue Note release, which means, for those of you not into jazz, it will kick you in the face.

Personnel: Bill Dixon is on the trumpet, Jimmy Lyons on the alto sax and there are two bassists; Alan Silva (plucking the upper registers and bowing the strings) and Henry Grimes (booming out those bottom notes). The skittering drums are played by Andrew Cyrille.

Play by play, like a sportscaster: Side one is the title track, opening with sprays of piano and a tumble of bass. A horn motif, loose and easy. Cecil Taylor's fingers on those keys are a rolling, fumbling beautiful thing while Lyons plays melodic lines in tension with the out-excursions of the rest of the group, eventually getting more and more sporadic and squonky as the music winds up into that Blue Note mayhem we love so much. Cyrille keeps a galloping pulse, heavy on the cymbals, clattering. Five minutes in and it's Dixon's shot. A mourning start to his solo as the band winds down, getting out of his way. Taylor punctuates the trumpet's soft wail and Cyrille lays out. The bowed bass responds. A hi-hat chops in tentatively, and steam is picked up. Winds in unison, moaning bowed bass, heavy cymbals, and that relentless, jagged piano playing. Cecil Taylor's gnarled piano lines are so strange. Listen to his solo at the nine-minute mark, with those rap-tap-clap drum fills. Stuff like that is why I listen to jazz.

Taylor's got the joyful go-at-it-kid enthusiasm of a toddler who just learned to lift the piano lid… if this toddler is the reincarnation of Thelonious Monk. It's sharp, angular playing, winding around tricky lines, embracing awkwardness and uneasiness. It's tension! It's suspense! It's not telling you where it's going, it's just going to go there and anyone can follow if they want. Most won't. I will. Just try to keep up, kid.

I can imagine these guys playing with clenched teeth and squinted eyes, the face of a good thrashing metalhead. Thirteen minutes in and that horn melody teases us before drumrolls and squealing bow that follow Taylor's rolling keys all over the place. I love the way Grimes percolates under everything like it's no big deal. Just doing his thing, popping those low notes under all this musical tantrum. And when we finally get to the bass duet we're ready, but it's short, wound so tight the rest of the band has to jump on it to hold it down. And then you have to turn over the record. I guess these guys are playing to the LP format. Too far over fifteen minutes and the grooves are narrower and sound quality drops. More importantly, those narrower grooves mean it's not as loud, and this music needs to be LOUD.

Side two is called "With (Exit)" and it starts so pretty. And it's a gangly, duckling pretty and it won't ever be a swan, but who needs swans? And who told me free jazz is all experiment and no emotion? Someone who never heard this, obviously.

Lyons steals the show on side two, seriously. You might even forget that it's not his name on the cover. He hits just the right balance between discernible melody and spiraling soundsheets.

The second side is a lot like the first, but a little better. On the 2003 reissue, an alternate take of "With (Exit)" is provided, just to show they never played it the same way twice. Mingus would say they couldn't play it twice. But why would they want to? When I'm not listening to this album I can't recall a single note, but that just means it surprises me every time.

In high school my favorite English teacher told me she liked NPR, except when they played that "experimental jazz." One of my artist friends thinks it's all intellectual nonsense, structurally worthless. My girlfriend has remarked that this kind of thing sounds totally random. It's your loss, people.