Tuesday, May 18, 2010
JANELLE MONÁE: Metropolis: The Chase Suite
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.