Listening 2016: Oct. 31-Nov. 4

Alicia Keys, Dixie Chicks, Gucci Mane, Namie Amuro, and Tove Lo

Here’s how this works. One week, I’ll listen to the albums I want to check out. After that week is over, I’ll spend time collecting my feelings and thoughts on what I heard, and if anything worth a mention comes up, I’ll write about it. It’s a simple exercise to get me not only writing about music but engaging as I listen too. I won’t write about everything, but I’ll write about something.

Here by Alicia Keys (RCA, 2016)

If I need a “record as catharsis” record from Alicia Keys, I prefer to put on The Element of Freedom. The purpose for each of the records is way different: her 2009 album is a processing of a separation; here, she attempts to unpack societal grief. But both try to express the process of creativity at its most immediate and prizes its function as self-therapy. To borrow her other album title, both turns its pages as a diary of Alicia Keys than a professional commercial product, like, say, As I Am.

The differences lie more so stylistically. The writings of The Element of Freedom read like bare sketches without concern for cleverness to just lay out the pain she felt. “First take is always best” seemed the maxim. Here thinks style first. The rhyme scheme sticks out so sharply, I start thinking of the process being something like, “uh, so what’s another word that rhymes with such and such?” She’s technically superb in “Illusion of Bliss” but while the hook spins high drama — “like a bottomless kiss… Illusion of bliss…” — it leaves more fluff than substance. It overcompensates in the end, writing a sense of depth where there might be actually not a whole lot.

[6]

Taking the Long Way by Dixie Chicks (Open Wide/Columbia Nashville, 2006)

“Long Way Around” sets the context for what follows: Dixie Chicks won’t be following any traditional paths to do what they want to do. That mindset certainly speaks as the band’s response to controversy at the time, fueling fire to a song like “Not Ready to Make Nice.”

A decade later, though, I hear their remove from tradition applied more literally upon their talk of life progress, that moment in “Long Way Around” where they compare marital status with their high-school classmates. I feel the passage of time in Taking the Long Way and how it informs the writing. The love songs that follow feel fit for their place in life as it looks through a more grown perspective than the wide-eyed romance of Wide Open Spaces, their breakthrough from nearly a decade before.

I need to revisit Home and listen to Fly to see how the Dixie Chicks have exactly grown between the two albums. But knowing the beginning and then finding out the end was a bittersweet experience in its self.

[8]

Woptober by Gucci Mane (1017 Brick Squad/Atlantic, 2016)

Gucci’s second commercial effort since his return from prison this year has been sold to me as more or less a return to his old run. There’s some truth to that: He crafts pop hooks like clockwork, ones that adore the nihilist joys of making mad money as well as the cha-ching noise it makes — classic Gucci. That inventiveness is what I found lacking in still-OK Everybody Looking, his homecoming album from July. The care for crooked angles in his writing extends to his verses, though his delivery locks slightly too careful for his own good. Maybe it’s rustiness. Maybe it’s an attempt at a new approach. Time will tell.

What doesn’t shine immediately is the heart share that piqued people’s interest in Everybody Looking (My choice for most memorable from his previous: “My own mama turned her back on me — and that’s my mama,” from “1st Day Out Tha Feds”). But the personal is there, mentioned less directly but similarly cold and introspective. The chorus of “Addicted” might come from the playbook of the drug-addled rapper before he went away, but the self-awareness distances the man from his past; his verses outline more on his path of self-recovery and forgiveness. Even “Money Machine” sounds more burdened from keeping up making more money than actually enjoying the wealth he makes. The line between old and new is already starting to blur, and that’s exciting.

[7]

Play by Namie Amuro (Avex Trax, 2007)

My fourth album by Amuro, and this one takes quite the leap in time from my previous listen, Genius 2000. During the seven-year interim, she started making albums without Tetsuya Komuro, the producer responsible for her rise, early sound, and her home, Avex Trax. (According to Wiki, her first album without Komuro was Style, released in 2003.) Different collaborators haven’t changed course for her progression, though. If you’re familiar with the change of R&B throughout those seven years, Play seems the logical end point from Genius 2000, an album where Amuro and Komuro was barely getting acquainted with turn-of-the-century R&B.

Four albums in, I’m still most fond of late ’90s Amuro, the one who sang “Chase the Chance,” “You’re My Sunshine,” and “Can You Celebrate?” It’s part nostalgia, I admit: early Amuro is the singer I vaguely remember hearing growing up. But this as my foundation is crucial: it’s my personal standard for Amuro for any other record.

From what I can gather so far, the singer’s best asset is her adaptability within shifts of pop trends. She moves smooth along the sleek, brass-assisted R&B that fits in the age of Stargate and Tricky Stewart. But so far, she has never been one to be ahead of the curve. She hasn’t had a definite sound to claim and expand, and somewhere down the line of the 2000s, the focus has went from personal skill to which hot sound she can master next. It’s a fine route, a much more sustainable one in the long run, but it’s also why I think I struggle to have a personal connection in a way I do with the other pop stars from Japan. She’s a great stylist, a role shown proficiently in Play. When she puts voice ahead of style, though, in ballads like “Can You Celebrate?” from Concentration 20 or even “Hero,” her contribution to the Rio Olympics this year, are the moments I really feel a connection.

[6]

Lady Wood by Tove Lo (Island, 2016)

I’m more intrigued on why I like Tove Lo over Banks than over Abel Tesfaye. The latter is easier to explain. While both constantly have strictly physical sex to tragic ends, her music doesn’t stray away from the fun in her lyric, “bodies, our baby-making bodies we use for fun,” in “Talking Body,” the single that made me a believer. Sex is a vice, destructive as it is healing, for both, but there’s more joy than numbness to get from Lady Wood.

Strictly talking music, the smokiness in Lady Wood doesn’t seem too far from Banks and her new album, The Altar. But perhaps this is where Tove Lo’s own style makes all the difference to define it beyond just another product The Weeknd has wrought. She delivers come-ons as well as phrases like “vibes” and “no fucks” because that’s just the kind of things people say in pop songs; “Boy” slips out in “Cool Girl” awkwardly like she’s barely trying the pet name out. It’s a flaw for some, but I like the slight oddness it gives to her songs. It makes her body talk ring even shallower.

[7]


Other albums/projects I checked out this week:

  • DJ Earl: Open Your Mind (Teklife, 2016)
  • Helado Negro: Private Energy (Asthmatic Kitty, 2016)
  • Jenny Hval: Blood Bitch (Sacred Bones, 2016)
  • Joyce Manor: Cody (Epitaph, 2016)
  • Ladies’ Code: Strang3r EP (Polaris Entertainment, 2016)
  • Max Richter: Memoryhouse (Late Junction, 2002)
  • Max Richter: Infra (Fat Cat, 2010)
  • Max Richter: Black Mirror, “Nosedive” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2016)
  • Mija B2B Anna Lunoe @ The Lab, Los Angeles (Mixmag, 2015)
  • Ringo Shiina: Hi Izuru Tokoro (Virgin, 2014)
  • Marie Davidson: Adieux au Dancefloor (Cititrax, 2016)
  • Shinichi Atobe: Ship-Scope EP (Chain Reaction, 2001)
  • Shinichi Atobe: World (DDS, 2016)