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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Living in Perfect Harmony (Gorillaz – Plastic Beach)

Posted by Brandon McKoy on March 11, 2010

This week has been one filled with a whole lot of excitement for a sizable portion of the music world as Gorillaz’ much anticipated third studio album Plastic Beach was released (listen to the tracks on Plastic Beach‘s Last.fm page, sans Stylo). It has been almost five years since Gorillaz’ last album Demon Days, a critically-acclaimed and widely loved album that really opened one 18-year old’s eyes to just how varied, spacious and inclusive alternative music can be.

At the time when Demon Days released I was just graduating high school and had been keeping hip-hop/rap and classic rock on heavy rotation on my iPod. It was a time when I considered No Doubt to be alternative just because I didn’t know how to place them in the niche genre (in my head) of rock. Oh, high school…when you think you have all the answers, meanwhile you don’t even know the questions. Needless to say, I eventually got a copy of Demon Days into my library and was instantly blown away. The difference between tracks, the amazing depth and breadth of instruments used, all flowing together seamlessly throughout the album to create an incredibly impressive sonic experience. After seeing the video for Feel Good, Inc. I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about the four band members that each character represented, surely they must be an interesting group of people to create such music and videos, right? …please forgive my youthful naiveté. After doing a few seconds worth of research I came to find that Gorillaz was no group of people. Damon Albarn of the British band Blur is the mastermind behind the music while Jamie Hewlett, the co-creator of the comic Tank Girl, is responsible for the artistic vision represented in images and videos. How these two individuals could create such an innovative virtual band blew my mind. For a young kid finding out just who the Gorillaz actually were was really an inspiring discovery.

It has been 5 years since I discovered the group that would help change and improve my music persuasions forever. I have graduated college (now thinking I know all the questions but have none of the answers) and am lucky enough to have a steady job. Recently, music has taken a more prevalent role in my life as I don’t have much of one anymore. I wake up, go to work, come home, eat, read/play games, go to sleep….lather, rinse, repeat. Music, more than ever before, has become a way for me to relate to people and understand where others are coming from. I could travel down to the backwoods of Kentucky and run into a rowdy group of Neo-Nazi skinheads and I’m confident I could relate to them in some significant manner simply through music. Music to me is literally the soundtrack of our lives as it influences society and visa-versa. With any significant lifetime memory you have, you can just about remember a song that was popular or special to you at the time. Music shows where we’ve been and how far we’ve come; Plastic Beach, to me, is the perfect representation of where we are. I’ve listened to the whole album over 10 times now, easy to do when you have a day that requires six hours of driving up and down I-95. Here are my impressions:

Right from the get-go we can see the medley of sounds and genres used in the album. It starts off with “Orchestral Intro,” a simple, yet absorbing movement, transitioning into “Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach,” a relaxed hip-hop beat with Snoop Dogg laying chill lyrics over the warm tunes of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble; a fitting introduction to Plastic Beach. The next track, “White Flag,” I can’t even describe. It draws from hip-hop, instrumental, oriental, and bass synth sounds. The track features The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music…if this doesn’t give you a sense of just how inclusive this album is then nothing will.

From here the album moves into three consecutive tracks that I think will end up being the most popular. “Rhinestone Eyes” is a groovy techno tune with tweaked vocals and a catchy chorus, so far being the most played song on the album according to Last.fm. Next up is the first single from the album, “Stylo.” This song also utilizes some sweet techno and synth rhythms and features Bobby Womack and Mos Def. The video for the song is absolutely fantastic and must be seen as Murdoc, 2D and Noodle are rendered in full 3D. They are racing down a desert highway as bad ass bounty hunter Bruce Willis chases them…what more could you want? The final track in this portion is “Superfast Jellyfish” which is the first real pop song so far. It features Gruff Rhys and De La Soul (who were featured on Gorillaz’ most popular song Feel Good Inc.) who provide a smooth rap flavor to go with a happy and upbeat tune.

The next handful of tracks all feature a heavy dose of techno and synth, but each evokes a starkly different emotion and feel. Gorillaz really show off just how diverse they can be in production when utilizing the same tools. Once the twelfth track “Sweepstakes” rolls around it’s as if someone hit the reset button. “Sweepstakes” itself is two songs in one. Mos Def has a really nice flow throughout the whole thing, but musically the track starts out with purely techno impressions. Halfway through, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble make their second cameo on the album and replace the techno with a happy-go-funky rendition of the melody. To me this is the most underrated track on the album as it has so few plays on Last.fm and I haven’t seen any review mention it specifically. By the time it’s over you’re left in a happier mood than when it began. If that’s not the sign of a good song then I don’t know what is.

The next song is the title track, being “Plastic Beach.” More techno and synth here, but it’s used in a way that evokes a unique orchestral feel. The last three tracks “To Binge,” “Cloud of Unknowing,” and “Pirate Jet.” All do a very good job of bringing a very solid and impressive collection of music to an end. Even so, I feel as though “Plastic Beach” would be a perfectly fine ending to the album without the last three tracks, although they do hold their own and do not detract from what is a great musical experience.

The reason I say that Plastic Beach represents where music is today is because of what it is. It’s an album that is all over the place, yet works exceptionally well as a whole; organized chaos as I like to call it. There’s orchestral movements, hip-hop tracks that sound like they were plu
cked straight from a Mos Def album, and several techno pieces. Featured artists are popular hip-hop stars like Snoop Dogg, Mos Def and De La Soul, a techno group just beginning to really grab the limelight in Little Dragon, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble who were not so long ago playing shows in the NYC Subway (a few videos on YouTube), and The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music whose name is a better descriptor of who they are than anything I could come up with. All of these people were brought together by Damon Albarn, a guy from Essex, England who happens to be a truly great composer and producer with a considerable eye for talent.

Sure, most people will say Demon Days is better and just as diverse and spectacular if not more so; I completely agree. Plastic Beach, however, is really an international effort, and this is what I mean when I say that it represents where music is today. The fact that a producer from England, Rappers from the United States, an electronic group from Sweden, a brass ensemble from the NYC subway, and The Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music can come together to create such a fantastic work of art that completely flows and works together is inspiring. You couldn’t say this about too many albums just a few years ago, but nowadays music is becoming more entwined and connected. People from all over the world are coming together to create beautiful harmony; the power of music is truly amazing and it shines through in Plastic Beach.
Listening to: Gorillaz – Sweepstakes (Feat. Mos Def and Hypnotic Brass Ensemble)
via FoxyTunes


Posted in music | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

They Don’t Want Music

Posted by Brandon McKoy on October 21, 2009

Recently a friend sent me a link to Party & Bullshit in the USA, the Miley Cyrus / Notorious B.I.G mash-up song, proclaiming that it was “incredible.” I’ll let you decide for yourself whether or not the song deserves to be held in such high regard; personally I think Biggie is rolling around in his grave waiting for someone to say his name three times so that he can temporarily come back to life and put a cap in the ass of whoever created it.

After listening and letting my buddy know how much I really hated the song, and by extension all things Miley Cyrus, we got into a pretty deep conversation about music tastes, appreciation, and the role of radio. When I mentioned how much I liked the new Raekwon album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II (one which many hip-hop heads think is better than Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3) my buddy said, “not everyone can be into super underground shit.” …at this point my head almost “asploded” as some would say. Raekwon isn’t even close to underground rap, anyone who has any decent grasp of the genre knows his name and his reputation. On the website Metacritic.com (which compiles reviews and ratings from all over the place and combines them into an average score, with 100 being the highest), Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II is listed with a score of 89. Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 has a score of 65. Underground music barely has any potential to get recognized, let alone outscore an album by arguably the best rapper of all-time. But I digress…let me get to the real reason why I started writing this.

There is a Huh-UUUGGEEEE difference between the music tastes of people who simply listen to/enjoy music, and those who play/have played an instrument (this includes singing, not trying to segregate or discriminate here).

That’s not a particularly surprising or sensational statement, and I think a lot of people agree with it, but the reason for this is really troubling to me. Sure, people who play instruments are going to naturally have a deeper appreciation for music since they have at least some base understanding of how it works and is constructed. I can play drums, bass, and piano, but enjoy drums the most. When I listen to songs my ear immediately tunes itself to the drum track before anything else, it’s an automated behavior. That’s probably not going to happen for anyone who hasn’t played an instrument, so right off the bat it’s easy to see why people who have played instruments have a deeper appreciation for the music they listen to.

The level of appreciation someone has is going to affect the diversity and variety of music they listen to. Remember the kid that almost made my head “asplode?” Well during the course of our conversation I discovered that he had “1,000 to 1,500 songs” on his computer. That many songs comes down to about 60 albums worth of music (using 15 songs per album as the average)…that’s barely anything at all! According to my Last.fm page I’ve listened to 1,389 artists…let alone songs. I said to my friend that the difference between he and I was the whole playing a musical instrument thing, and that kids who did play instruments had a greater diversity in taste. His retort was that “if you know what you like, what is the problem?” That’s just it though, how do you know what you like if you don’t make the effort to listen to different things. When I was a wee-child (not as long ago as it seems) I absolutely hated watching my mother eat her favorite food, lobster. It was disgustingly abhorrent to me that someone would crack open a poor lifeless animal and gouge out its insides, simply for selfish personal satisfaction. Then one day, my mother made me try a piece of her lobster tail…and my favorite food for the past five years has been lobster. One can’t really know what they like if they keep experiencing the same thing over and over. My buddy said that 1,500 songs is plenty and you don’t end up listening to the same thing over and over….I just yelled at him.

At this point my snide remarks and berating got to my friend and he called me a music snob. I get it, I definitely do feel that I have a really great perspective on music. I don’t discriminate, I listen to anything and everything I can get my hands onto, even death metal thanks to my college roommate Steve. But who’s the real music snob here? Someone who’s open to anything and everything with open arms, or someone who thinks they already know what they like and isn’t really willing to go out and listen to different things?

I previously mentioned Last.fm, which I consider to be a Godsend of a website that tracks all of the music you listen to on iTunes, Winamp, your iPod/iPhone, the Last.fm website itself, and 78 other gadgets/mediums. You then have your own profile where you can view all of the songs and artists you have listened to in a pretty sweet layout. You also get your own personal library radio stream which is based on the statistics of your listening habits. You can sort these stats for the last 7 days, 3 months, 6 months, year, and all-time. There are even apps out there that will create little artistic pictures for you of your musical tastes, such as a collage of your most listened to artists that you can use as a desktop wallpaper. You can add your friends and look at what they’re listening to, join groups, and track the tour dates of your favorite artists. It also suggests artists you might like based on your listening habits. Simply put, I think Last.fm is awesome-o.

A lot of the people I know who play/played instruments use Last.fm. A lot of the people I know who listen to music for pleasure/enjoyment use Pandora. I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain Pandora considering it’s popularity, but just in case: Pandora is a music streaming platform that creates playlists and stations based on the artists you enter. Kind of like the personal library stream that Last.fm has, except it relies on a self-report of your tastes instead of statistical tracking. It’s pretty good, but it’s no Last.fm.

All in all, I have to say that I’m pretty happy that people are at least listening to music on platforms that encourage them to discover something else they may like. These services along with mp3 players have made the radio a non-entity for a lot of people. I can’t remember the last time that I listened to the radio and enjoyed it. Has anyone ever heard a song last longer than 3 minutes and 30 seconds on top 100 radio? Sure, you have your classic rock stations or your old school R&B; stations which play lengthy songs in their en
tirety, but I’m talking about current radio. Everything is tailored to an ADD, 10-second attention span, twitter & facebook updates every half an hour, kind of generation that writes something off as crap if they don’t like it in the first few moments. What happened to listening to something all the way through before you formed an opinion on it?

Some of the good bands that I’ve been listening to lately (and Last.fm will confirm this, so very convenient) are Passion Pit, Raekwon, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I have never heard any of them on the radio (maybe Gold Lion by YYY’s once…ONCE). Why? Because their songs take more than a couple of minutes to play out and be fully appreciated. Who do I hear all the time on Z100 though: Jay-Z, Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, etc., etc. I get it Z100, D.O.A. is a pretty good song, but when you played it almost every half hour for 3 weeks straight and one of the lyrics is, “this ain’t for Z100, ye told me to kill y’all to keep it 100,” you look stupid.

Popular radio doesn’t care about providing the public with good tunes that’ll do more than just make your head bop. They don’t wanna expand your horizons. They just want the dollar bills. No, I’m not naïve, I know it’s a business, but I do have a problem with people who base their music tastes on what the radio plays. In a previous post I commented on the mainstream news media, saying, “all it’s doing is reinforcing your current opinion, not challenging it.” Well that’s what “popular” music radio is. It plays something that you won’t necessarily hate, and doesn’t play it long enough for you to form a proper opinion of it. They just keep force-feeding people whatever financially benefits them and the industry the most. Music is more than a techno beat with uninspired lyrics thrown on top of it. Music has the power to do so many things; it can challenge, sadden, and inspire you. It can pick you up from the bottom of the pit and give you the confidence to take on any obstruction you may face. It can humble you and make you appreciate the many little things that you take for granted every single day. The radio doesn’t care about that, and listeners don’t seem to mind ’cause they just want to bop their heads. They don’t want music.

Listening to: The Black Eyed Peas – They Don’t Want Music (feat. James Brown)
via FoxyTunes

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